It had been one of the defining images of the 2019 tennis season. But on this October evening Coco Gauff's expansive smile was twisted into a frown. The 15-year-old had emerged as the sport's hottest sensation in years, though she felt anything but hot at this moment. And not simply because the locker room at TipsArena in Linz, Austria, was inexplicably frigid.
Given Gauff's modest ranking (110)—which she couldn't elevate because of age-based restrictions on her schedule—she had to play in the tournament's qualifying rounds just to get into the main draw. No problem. A few months earlier Gauff had gone through the same drill at Wimbledon only to blaze through three opponents and, before she knew it, have a match on Centre Court.
Yet at this modest WTA event things hadn't gone nearly as well. Playing in front of a few hundred fans, Gauff suddenly seemed younger than most of the ball kids. On some points she dazzled, nearly stripping the felt from the ball. On others she looked as if she had picked up a racket for the first time. To great disappointment—the crowd's, the WTA's and not least her own—Gauff fell in straight sets to a little-known 24-year-old German.
In recalling that afternoon a few weeks later, Gauff stresses that she was not crying. But as she stared at the strings of her racket, trying to process her defeat, she looked darn near close to tears. She had crossed an ocean to play one of her few allotted events and she'd lost like this?
And then a Greek player, Maria Sakkari, had to withdraw from Linz with an injury. Gauff received Sakkari's spot in the draw—a "lucky loser" in tennis jargon. Equally relieved and grateful, Gauff brought her precocious, ferocious game to bear. She won her first match. Then another. And another, this one over Kiki Bertens, a Top 10 player nearly twice Gauff's age. In the final Gauff faced 22-year-old Jelena Ostapenko, the 2017 French Open champ. Gauff took her down 6–3, 1–6, 6–2.
And so, at an age when her peers are worrying about when the next season of Big Mouth drops, Gauff hoisted the first of what will almost certainly be many professional tennis trophies. The hype train was back on the tracks. "There are going to be highs and going to be lows, but I can't get too high or too low, you know?" she says now. "There are going to be all sorts of things I don't, maybe, expect. But you still have to roll with it."
Hear that? Inadvertently, Gauff was demonstrating not only why she is already so damn good but also why she is likely to get even better—and why she is SI's Breakthrough Athlete for 2019. Her greatest assets: her low center of emotional gravity, her perspective, her ability to reset when a call doesn't go her way or she hits a rough stretch during a match. Or even when she finds herself with a shot in a tournament after a disheartening flameout in the qualifier rounds. Already, she gets it.
By her own admission Gauff's backstory is "kinda boring." Which makes it kinda fascinating. Cori, nicknamed Coco, was born on March 13, 2004, a month after Facebook, to Candi and Corey Gauff. Both were Division I athletes—she, a hurdler at Florida State; he, a guard at Georgia State. But after college they happily transitioned to a fiercely middle-class life in Atlanta. Corey sold pharmaceuticals and then became an executive at a company owned by Pfizer. Before becoming a mother of three, Candi was an elementary school teacher.
It soon became obvious to them that the first of their three children had inherited their athletic genes. And beyond that, she had burning intensity and ambition. Candi tells the story of taking Coco, then three or four, to a track with her older cousins. "She kept running and running," recalls Candi, "and she was crying because she couldn't catch them." Candi and Corey looked at each other: "Buckle up."
The question was not whether Coco would compete, but in which sport. Candi's daughter was fast, but not the fastest. To Corey's dismay, Coco could run the floor and play fierce D, but her shooting was problematic. At seven, inspired by Serena Williams, Coco discovered tennis. "It was," she says, "the perfect sport for me." She could use her speed and agility and coordination. The need for power, leavened with accuracy, played to her strengths. And, maybe above all, it allowed her to draw on both her parents.
Let her explain: "I feel like my dad, we are both pretty stubborn people. We are both fiery—though I think my dad has more of a temper than me. But my mom, she is more chill. She is more like, O.K., let's take things slow and have patience. I am literally right in the middle."
To accommodate Coco's tennis, the family moved from Atlanta to Delray Beach, Fla. By 13 she reached the final of the girls' event of the U.S. Open (18 and under). Coco's success put some stress on the Gauffs financially. Tending to their eldest became a full-time undertaking. "We went from a two-income home to a no-income home," Corey has joked.
Beyond that, there was a sort of existential strain. The Gauffs had aspired to raise their kids, including brothers Cameron and Codey, amid comfort and convention—youth sports and proms and carpools in the minivan. Suddenly they had to recalibrate for a prodigy. "We wanted her to have a quote unquote normal childhood," says Corey. "But—and this is a term I always use—we didn't want to be dream-killers."
Early in 2019, Coco texted friends and family her goals, which included reaching the WTA's top 100. Given that she was 14 and ranked No. 685, that seemed, well, low-key ambitious, as Coco often says. Corey and Candi bit their respective tongues. "They probably thought I couldn't do it," says Coco. "But they never told me that."
As if shopping in bulk, Coco won matches on all manner of surfaces. While these victories occurred in the equivalent of the minor leagues, her ranking was rising to match her confidence. In July she didn't so much play Wimbledon as crash it. After qualifying, she faced the mighty Venus Williams, five-time Wimbledon champion, in round 1. Doing a formidable impression of, well, Venus Williams, Gauff prevailed 6–4, 6–4.
This made for international news. Coco's smile, her braids and the broad strokes of her background were discussed everywhere. And then she did something almost more remarkable and propitious: She stayed off her phone. Gauff won two more matches before falling to Simona Halep, a former world No. 1 who would go on to win the tournament. "She's going to be so, so good," Halep marveled. "Usually you say, 'Keep working hard,' but I don't think she needs to hear that."
Back in Florida, with the help of her parents and management team, Coco brushed aside the cloudburst of fame and tried to make the most of her scant playing opportunities. Over the summer she partnered with another teenager, Caty McNally, to win the doubles title at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C., a testament to her versatility, her net game and her ability to work well with others. At the U.S. Open, Gauff made it through two rounds before losing to Naomi Osaka, the defending champion, in front of 20,000 fans and a worldwide television audience.
In a game-respects-game display, Osaka encouraged Gauff to remain on the court after their match, to soak in the occasion and address the crowd. After she wiped away her tears, Coco had this to say about her opponent: "For me, the definition of an athlete is someone who on the court treats you like they're your worst enemy, but off the court can be your best friend. I think that's what she did tonight."
Six weeks later Gauff was back in the winning business in Linz. After blowing through the draw she was ranked No. 71, achieving her ambitious goal of cracking the top 100. She had won her 29th singles match of the year. She had eclipsed $500,000 in prize money—an amount dwarfed by the endorsement dollars she receives from sponsors such as New Balance and Barilla pasta. Oh, and how was she going to spend her lucre? "Probably," she said after some contemplation, "on a Halloween costume."
Tennis celebrates its young. And often—see Capriati, see Kournikova, see Lenglen—the sport has been known to eat its young, too. In 1994 the WTA passed the age-eligibility rule, which limited how many events players under 17 can enter. Soon after, you were no more likely to find a teen in the top 20 than you were likely to see one reading a newspaper. As the Williams sisters crowd age 40 (!), the WTA is looking for its next transcendent stars. But women's tennis is unwilling to relax its restrictions for Gauff. No matter how much attention and interest (and Instagram following) she can generate—and no matter how well-adjusted and impervious to burnout she might appear to be—she can enter only a handful of events next year. You could argue that these guardrails are admirable and responsible. You could also argue that they lead to more pressure when young stars do play. For her part, Gauff has stayed out of the discussion, choosing not to worry about what she cannot control.
Besides, there are other issues to address. While Halloween was a smashing success—she didn't blow her prize money; the Pennywise costume she wore came from Party City—she is behind on science, math and English homework for the online classes she is taking. Now Christmas is coming. After that, a family trip to New Orleans. There are new memes to watch, and her brothers' basketball seasons are kicking into gear.
And, oh, right, that tennis thing. November and December have been devoted to training. She has been working on nuances and improving her conditioning and durability. Corey handles many of the coaching duties, along with Patrick Mouratoglou, a France-based coach who works principally with Serena Williams. Like a prizefighter before a bout, Coco rotates sparring partners. Like a prisoner about to be paroled, she is counting the days until January's Australian Open, her next big public appearance.
On a rainy November day in South Florida she seeks refuge in a car she's not old enough to drive, rehashing all that happened in 2019 and explaining how she is going to reset for '20. She's still considering specific goals. But Coco knows this: "It will be a good year," she says, laughing, "if I remain having tunnel vision."