At Washington’s Citi Open, she won the first doubles title of her career in early August, just days after meeting her role model, former first lady Michelle Obama.
In late August, Gauff faced the U.S. Open’s defending champion, Naomi Osaka, in a prime-time, sold-out match at Arthur Ashe Stadium, the world’s biggest tennis venue. Though she lost in straight sets, she rebounded in October by winning her first WTA singles title in Linz, Austria.
By season’s end, the hard-hitting, steely nerved Gauff boasted nearly 615,000 Instagram followers and a career-high world ranking of 68 after opening the year at No. 685. And she achieved all this with her feet planted firmly on the ground and her focus intact.
In a telephone interview this week, Gauff reflected on her season’s defining moments — some of which, she said, she still can’t quite believe — and spoke about her plans for 2020, confirming that they include a return to the Citi Open, which will be contested Aug. 1-9 at Rock Creek Park Tennis Center.
“Last year I won my first WTA title in singles or doubles in Washington, and I also got to meet Miss Michelle Obama, which was really cool as well,” Gauff said, explaining that the two spoke for nearly an hour about the importance of following her own path and handling pressure. “My family and I had a good time in D.C., so it wasn’t hard to make the decision to come back.”
Having Gauff in the 2019 Citi Open field on the heels of her breakout performance at Wimbledon energized Washington sports fans. Crowds packed the stands for her qualifying matches and returned in droves for her singles campaign, which ended with a first-round loss, and her triumphant doubles run with Caty McNally.
“Coco-mania” was even more palpable at the U.S. Open three weeks later.
“Coming out of Wimbledon, she was the tennis story,” said Chris Widmaier, the U.S. Open’s managing director of communications. “It’s not every day that a young tennis player turns into water-cooler talk, but people who followed the sport only tangentially knew about Coco Gauff and were excited about her.”
Gauff’s U.S. Open ended with a 6-3, 6-0 loss to Osaka that was made memorable by the players’ heartfelt exchange afterward, with Osaka, then 21, insisting that Gauff join her in the victor’s customary on-court interview so the tearful teen could be further cheered by a crowd that had rooted her on throughout.
It was the tournament’s shining moment. And it endures with Gauff, too.
“I really didn’t want to take the moment from her, because she had reached the round of 16 and it was her moment,” Gauff said. “But she gave me such sweet words, and I think she meant it.”
Looking back on the tears she shed, Gauff said it wasn’t so much the defeat that upset her — Osaka was, after all, the world No. 1 — but the fact that the match was over so quickly, in just 65 minutes, before she found her footing.
“The whole match I felt I just was adjusting,” Gauff said from her home in Delray Beach, Fla., where she is training during the offseason.
She had adjusted so well to the mania that erupted at Wimbledon. In the heady days that followed, she met actor and musician Jaden Smith, FaceTimed with his mother, actress Jada Pinkett Smith, and got social media shout-outs from Samuel L. Jackson and Snoop Dogg.
But none of this upended her focus. Said Gauff: “I was hungry for more — not more of the attention but more of the winning. I wanted to improve my ranking. After that, every time I accomplished a goal, I would set a new goal, so I always had something to reach for.”
Gauff was greeted like a rock star at the U.S. Open, where fans chanted her name when she stepped out to 14,000-seat Louis Armstrong Stadium for her first-round match.
Playing Osaka in 23,771-seat Ashe Stadium, however, proved entirely different.
“I was a little intimidated; I’ve watched so many matches on it,” Gauff explained. “And it’s a lot bigger when you’re inside it.”
She was also taken aback, at least at the outset, by the power of Osaka’s strokes, which seemed even harder and heavier than Williams’s blasts on grass.
“I think it was all about trusting my shots,” Gauff said, reflecting on the lessons. “It wasn’t anything technical that I was doing; I just felt like I was adjusting the whole time.”
Today, Gauff said she still can’t quite believe she has a WTA singles title, calling it “kind of crazy.” But she is enjoying her nearly three-month offseason and the time it has afforded to catch up on her online schooling (she is a junior) and elevate her game with an eye toward a busier tournament schedule in 2020.
“We’ve been working a lot on changing directions, stepping into the court and pretty much everything,” said Gauff, who turns 16 in March and will be permitted under WTA rules to play a slightly heavier tournament schedule.
She will open the 2020 season with a tuneup event in Auckland, New Zealand, two weeks before the Australian Open.
And in August, she will return to Washington as the ideal marquee player, in the view of Mark Ein, the Washington-based venture capitalist who manages the Citi Open, to help celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Citi Open’s women’s event.
“Given the amount of young talent in the game, having a player back like Coco, who certainly represents a big part of the future of tennis, is a perfect fit,” Ein said.