The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Coco Gauff’s tennis success has given her a platform. She wants to use it.

In a wide-ranging interview, Coco Gauff spoke about how she manages pressure as a highly scrutinized athlete and a female athlete of color and her advocacy of social and racial justice. (Michael Blackshire/The Washington Post)
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Coco Gauff was 9 or 10, as she recalls, when her mother gave her a journal, explaining that it was important she have a private place to write down her feelings or anything she wanted.

Gauff has kept a journal ever since, scribbling a few sentences when she has the urge, skipping entries for weeks at a time and writing expansively on other occasions.

She keeps all of her completed journals in her bedroom at her family’s home in South Florida and brings the one in progress with her when she travels to tennis tournaments. Its unfilled pages are a packable, trusted friend and confidant who listens without judging.

But Gauff said she never understood the true value of journaling until the past few weeks — a span in which a coronavirus diagnosis scuttled her participation in the Tokyo Olympics, gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from most of her competitions and Gauff reflected on the mental health challenges and weight of expectations shouldered by professional athletes.

“I’ve been watching everything unfold,” Gauff explained in a recent interview. “I just feel like the media and everyone forgets that a mental injury is just as painful as a physical injury. Mental health is invisible, but it’s a very real issue.”

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And in Gauff’s case, when Biles said the outpouring of support made her finally realize, at 24, that “I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics,” it struck a nerve.

“That’s something personally I had to work through and deal with, and I would imagine that other people feel that, too,” Gauff said. “It’s important for us to know that our worth isn’t defined by how well we do in our sport.”

If trophies, tournament titles and winnings are the tangible rewards of Gauff’s achievements at 17, her journals reflect her inner growth.

For years, journaling has been a means, she said, of maintaining her mental health.

“For me, when you’re writing out your problems, you can kind of figure out what you’re feeling,” Gauff said. “Once you know what the problem is, you can fix it.”

Re-reading her old journals, as she said she does from time to time, is also a means of taking stock of how far she has come.

Gauff’s career has taken off since she emerged on the tennis scene in 2019, when she toppled her idol, Venus Williams, in the first round of Wimbledon at 15. That moment was built on years of steady, systematic development under the coaching of her father, Corey, a former Georgia State basketball player, and the tutelage of her mother, Candi, who competed in track at Florida State.

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In a wide-ranging interview while in Washington last week, Gauff spoke about how she manages pressure as a highly scrutinized athlete — and a female athlete of color — and her advocacy of social and racial justice.

In Washington to headline the Citi Open women’s invitational, Gauff practiced at Rock Creek Park Tennis Center, conducted a clinic and played two matches in a red, white and blue dress she explained was her tribute to U.S. Olympians, then flew to Montreal for the National Bank Open, where she opened play Tuesday with a 6-1, 6-4 win over Anastasija Sevastova.

The packed, three-day schedule was a slice of the itinerant life of the world’s 24th-ranked female player, whose country-hopping itinerary complicated her attempt to get vaccinated for the coronavirus. She tested positive, she explained, the week she had planned to get the first of two shots in the brief July window between Wimbledon and the Tokyo Games. She now plans to get her shots once back on U.S. soil, before and after the U.S. Open.

From the outset of her pro career, Gauff had a vision of doing more than climbing the rankings and winning titles. In signing a multiyear sponsorship deal with New Balance at 14, she said wanted to be a role model to as many young athletes as possible.

Today, at 17, she also wants to use the platform tennis gives her to advocate for justice on racial and social inequity.

It is a responsibility she feels comes with the privilege of having a large platform on social media, despite being too young to vote.

“I’m not the only one in the world who believes in this message, but not many people have the opportunity to reach as many people as I can,” Gauff said. “I try to be the voice for those who don’t have one.”

The inspiration comes from her grandmother on her mother’s side, she explained, who has spoken with her seven grandchildren about what she went through as a young Black girl who was first to integrate her Florida high school decades ago.

“That is how she became resilient,” Gauff said. “So having someone so close to pave the way for me, I feel like I want to pave the way for my future kid and grandkids.”

After the May 2020 killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, who has since been convicted of murder, Gauff posted links on social media to resources to support Black Lives Matter and urged others to spread awareness. She also spoke at a Black Lives Matter rally in her hometown of Delray Beach, Fla.

“Everybody was hurting,” said Gauff, who noted that she was 8 when Trayvon Martin, an unarmed high school student, was shot and killed in Sanford, Fla. “No one wants to go out there and protest on the street, because it’s not an easy issue. I’m sure people would much rather go to a parade. But it’s something we have to bring light to.”

The killings of unarmed Black men, women and youths serve as one part of the unseen weight Black athletes carry, Gauff said, in addition to microaggressions that often go unremarked but are felt acutely.

“Unfortunately every Black kid in America has at least one story they can share,” Gauff said. “But that’s the reason why I do what I do — for myself, and because the Williams sisters did that for me. Seeing someone that looked like me holding up all the trophies in a sport that not too many Black people play definitely meant a lot. I hope that one day somebody else can say that I did the same for them.”

Read more on tennis:

At the Citi Open, Jannik Sinner turns back a fierce challenge by Mackenzie McDonald for the title

At the Citi Open, this small team of racket stringers has a big job

Last week, they were in Tokyo. Now, some Olympians are playing in the Citi Open.