Coco Gauff: U.S. Open Champion and Advocate for Change
By Desta Sahle
Earlier this month, Coco Gauff hit one final backhand at the U.S. Open and fell to the ground in a flurry of emotions. Fans in N.Y.C.’s historic Arthur Ashe stadium and all around the world rejoiced. Coco had just made pro tennis history by winning her first career Grand Slam. This incredible accomplishment marks the first American teen victory at the championship since Serena Williams almost 25 years ago. Even more impressive than Coco’s win, however, is the inspiring story of how she got here and the sky-high trajectory of where she’s going.
Coco first embarked on her 2023 U.S. Open journey with a thrilling comeback victory over German qualifier Laura Siegemund, overturning a set deficit to progress to round two. Coco didn’t just win the match– she also won over thousands of fans through a viral TikTok clip captured on the court. Siegemund’s attempts to slow down the game and gain an unfair advantage led to a heated exchange between Coco and the line judge. Frustrated by the judge’s refusal to intervene, Coco told her: “I don't care what [Siegmund] is doing on her serve, but my serve, she has to be ready.” The crowd roared in support and viewers at home grew mesmerized by the 19-year-old’s ability to both advocate for herself and maintain composure.
In the following round, Coco faced a challenging matchup against 16-year-old Mirra Andreeva, ultimately winning 6-3, 6-2. Moving forward, she encountered Elise Mertens, a match that proved to be a seesaw of breakpoints and tenacity. Coco, however, managed to rally and secure a 3-6, 6-3, 6-0 victory, bringing her into the last 16. Her next matchup against Caroline Wozniacki required similar resilience: Coco lost four consecutive games in the fourth match. Undeterred, Coco made an incredible comeback and won 6-3, 3-6, 6-1.
Coco had made it to the U.S. Open quarterfinals for the second consecutive year, where she would win in just 68 minutes against Jelena Ostapenko. This memorable game resulted in Coco’s debut Grand Slam semifinal appearance, where she entered a face-off against Karolina Muchova. In this dramatic match, Coco had to wrestle more than her opponent with an unexpected pause in the game due to climate change protests. Nevertheless, she maintained her composure and left the match with a 6-4, 7-5 victory. This triumph paved the way for her final clash against Aryna Sabalenka from Belarus. Despite starting on the back foot with a 2-6 loss in the first set, Coco displayed immense grit, fighting back to secure the title with a final score of 2-6, 6-3, 6-2. This marked Coco Coco’s first-ever Grand Slam title.
Coco’s athletic career has been an impressive one from the start. Her trajectory has consistently soared from her stunning victory over Venus Williams as a 15-year-old to clinching her first Grand Slam title this month. Coco’s incredible journey was enriched by the background that shaped her. While her athletic accolades are undeniably impressive, the story of her holistic development, which she attributes to her family, stands out even more.
Corey Gauff, Coco's father, had a background in collegiate basketball and introduced Coco to a diverse set of sports during her formative years. When tennis became the sport she stuck with, Corey became her coach, honing her tennis skills from a young age. He instilled in her the importance of self-belief, lessons Coco attributes to her significant victories, including defeating Venus Williams in 2019. Beyond tennis, Coco's mother, Candi, managed Coco's education and provided emotional support, ensuring a well-rounded development both on and off the court. Candi drew her insightful perspective from her family's legacy. Candi's father, Eddie "Red" Odom, significantly contributed to racial equality in sports by founding a Little League that created opportunities for Black children to participate in baseball. Candi's mother, Yvonne, was the first Black student to integrate her high school. Through such role models, Candi imparted social responsibility and advocacy values, which she instilled in Coco at a young age.
Given these values, it’s no wonder Serena Williams is such a monumental idol for Coco – not just for her unparalleled achievements in tennis but for how she has revolutionized a predominantly white sport. To Coco, Serena's presence in tennis provided representation, allowing her to see herself in the sport's pinnacle. Growing up, Coco didn't feel out of place in tennis because the world's top player mirrored her identity. Beyond her accomplishments on the court, Serena's interactions deeply influenced Coco. Serena's refusal to settle for less in both business and sports, especially as a black woman in a challenging world, has always inspired Coco.
Coco has followed Serena’s lead in creating long-lasting, meaningful relationships in the sports sponsorship space. Through the lens of sports management, the strategic partnership between Coco and New Balance epitomizes the potential of athlete-brand synergy, similar to Serena’s partnership with Nike. When New Balance printed their first "Call Me Coco" t-shirt in response to one of Coco's press conference quotes, it was already a marketing genius. After her U.S. Open triumph, New Balance seamlessly transitioned the slogan to "Call Me Coco Champion" and made the shirt immediately available for purchase. This instantaneous merchandising move is a testament to the foresight, authenticity, and strength of their partnership. Drawing parallels, Serena Williams has been an equally transformative figure in sports marketing. Her long-standing relationship with Nike led to a recent tribute ad encapsulating her legacy, portraying the depth of their partnership. Both Coco and Serena maintain profoundly authentic relationships with their sponsors. While New Balance placed faith in Coco as early as 2018 when she was just 14, Nike forged a bond with Serena in 2003. These alliances demonstrate the commitment and foresight of brands in paving the way for black women in sports marketing.
Following her monumental U.S. Open victory, Coco is adamant about showing that athletes can be impactful advocates for societal change. Like Serena, Coco recognizes her unique position as a black female athlete with the power to make influential changes within and beyond tennis. With her newfound global recognition, Coco is passionate about leveraging her platform to inspire the future of black female athletes, standing firm in her values, creating conversations around critical social justice issues, and developing meaningful relationships with her supporters and brands. After her exciting U.S. Open win, it’s no surprise fans around the world have high hopes for Coco Gauff as an enduring figure in women's tennis.