IT’S 7 P.M. ON a rainy evening in Delray Beach, Florida, and the line in the gymnasium at Pompey Park is long — so long that the faithful have sought comfort in the folding chairs along the sideline. They’re there to see their homegrown tennis sensation. It’s a very slow line. Coco Gauff is taking her sweet time.
The 15-year-old phenom signs everything — from tennis balls to glossy photographs of her in action at Wimbledon to baby bibs — with notable attention to detail. She holds extended conversations. She poses for pictures, many pictures, her light camouflage T-shirt only partially covered by the braids flowing nearly the length of her back. She legitimately appears to be enjoying an act that many professional athletes dread.
“Do you want to play tennis when you grow up?” Gauff asks 3-year-old Malia Mobley, who’s gripping the tennis ball she wants signed in one hand and the fingertips of her mother in the other. Malia, peering out from beneath a pair of Minnie Mouse ears, nods. Gauff reaches under the table and pulls out a pair of match-worn New Balance sneakers with her signature, “Coco,” followed by a heart.
“One day when you grow up and you’re able to fill these shoes,” Gauff says, presenting them to Malia, “you’ll be able to make your dreams come true as well.”
Seven years earlier, Venus Williams — winner of seven career grand slam singles events — had shared a similar moment with an 8-year-old Coco, gifting Gauff a signed tennis ball that ultimately, in effect, flew around the world and smacked Williams back in her face. In early July, it took Gauff all of 79 minutes to dominate Venus in a straight-sets win in the opening round of Wimbledon.
It was — in case you missed it — quite the tournament for Gauff. She’d earned the right to play Venus by winning three qualifying matches, becoming the youngest woman to play at Wimbledon in the Open era. After dispatching Venus, she played her way into the second week of the tournament before losing in the round of 16 to Simona Halep. And though Halep would go on to claim the Wimbledon title, it was Gauff who would ultimately leave as the tournament’s biggest winner.
She had arrived in London ranked 313th in the world; she departed ranked 141st. She had crossed the pond with just over 30,000 Instagram followers. She returned to Delray Beach with well over 300,000. Tennis royalty from Roger Federer to Serena Williams praised her; Snoop Dogg and Jaden Smith applauded her; her parents, Corey and Candi, became semi-famous in their own right.
And today, as Corey surveys the scene in the gym at Pompey Park — Coco signing under the watchful eye of three police officers; his wife taking in the scene with her Delta Sigma Theta sorority sisters; his sons, Cameron and Cody, basking in the overflow of love — he’s clearly savoring the moment.
“When she was a kid, I told her she would entertain the world with her racket,” Corey says, the corners of his mouth curving into a wide smile. “What’s happening now? I had no idea it would come to fruition so fast.”
IN 2010, AS tennis instructor Gerard Loglo made the drive to the Rainberry Bay Tennis Club in Delray Beach, he hardly knew what to expect.
Loglo was headed there to observe a 6-year-old girl he was told had real potential. It was hardly the first time he’d heard such a claim. Tennis academies had grown exponentially in Palm Beach County in prior decades. The belief among the region’s parents that their kid was the next Serena or Federer had grown in kind. And as Loglo walked onto the court and laid eyes on the player who his friend, respected tennis coach Sly Black, said had the talent to reach the next level … well, let’s just say the initial optics weren’t overwhelming.
“She was so tiny,” Loglo recalls. “She barely reached the net.”
But then, as Loglo — a former pro who had worked as a hitter with the Williams sisters — stood off to the side, little Cori “Coco” Gauff showed out. Extended volleys. Athleticism. Strength. Focus. All beyond the talents of any 6-year-old he’d ever seen.
Before the session had ended, Loglo told Black that he’d take the job. Then, walking over to Corey Gauff, he declared: “One day, your daughter is going to be a champ.”
The Gauffs pretty much already knew.
Tiny little Coco was blessed with a full-sized competitive streak. She refused to lose in checkers to her grandmother. She locked down boys in basketball leagues. She won the first 5K she ever ran.
Corey recalls how 4-year-old Coco had watched Serena win the 2009 Australian Open and how she’d sat perplexed when her father had declared Serena to be the “GOAT.” Corey explained to Coco that the term meant Greatest of All Time.
Coco’s response? “Daddy, I want to be the GOAT!”
And so in 2012, the Gauffs essentially back-burnered their careers — Candi as an educator and Corey as a health care executive — to move from Atlanta back to their hometown of Delray Beach full time, where they’d follow the Richard Williams path to success: Gauff would be home-schooled by her mother, coached by her dad. She would even train on the same courts at Pompey Park that the Williams sisters had played on after the family moved to Delray Beach from Compton. (As Yvonne Odom, Gauff’s grandmother, says of Venus and Serena: “They were at Pompey Park all the time.”)
Those courts at Pompey Park are located in the African American section of Delray Beach, just a few blocks north of the main road that funnels beachgoers out to the Delray Beach coast. They’re part of a 17.5-acre athletic complex frequented by the city’s black residents, many of whom reside in the neatly maintained single-level homes nearby.
The complex is named for Spencer Pompey, a local civil rights activist who in 1942 helped sue the Palm Beach County School Board for unequal pay of black teachers (with the help of Thurgood Marshall, he won); who battled the city to have black residents frequent its beaches; and who pushed for the creation of recreation facilities in the city to serve its black youth.
Pompey was also a coach and principal at Carver High School, where Coco’s grandfather, Eddie Odom, was a football and baseball star, before going on to play three years in the minor leagues. After Odom returned to Delray Beach and discovered that the local youth baseball league excluded African American boys, he and his wife in 1971 joined a group to launch the Delray Beach American League. Today that baseball diamond, diagonally across from the tennis courts, is named Odom Field.
“All we wanted was to provide for our kids a place to play,” Odom says today from the living room of his Delray Beach home. “Our kids just need a chance.” By the time his granddaughter Coco was 8, she was making the most of that chance.
Gauff won the 2012 “Little Mo” 8-under national title in New York, hoisting over her head a trophy nearly as big as she was. By 2014, at the age of 10, she had won the USTA Clay Court National 12-under title, the youngest champ in tournament history. That same year she traveled to France and earned a spot in the academy run by Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams’ coach.
Not long after that, as Loglo tells it, a coach and his 16-year-old player dropped in on Loglo’s academy looking for a game. Palm Beach County is a tennis hotbed, and it’s common for out-of-town players to stop by the various academies to hone their craft. But when Loglo set her up with Gauff, the visitor looked at the preteen with disdain.
“Give me someone else,” Loglo recalls her saying. “I’m not playing that little girl.”
When the visiting coach persuaded his player to play a warm-up set against the “little girl,” Loglo approached Gauff.
“You hear what she said?” Gauff nodded.
“Go tear her apart.”
That 16-year-old got dragged.
Asked to confirm Loglo’s story, Gauff laughs. “I was really young. That happened a lot. I’m a little girl hitting with people who were older, and they were surprised by how balls came off my racket. They may have looked at it as hitting against a little girl. I looked at it as playing with people who were older and trying to get better.”
She got better. Gauff won the Junior Orange Bowl 12-under title and by age 13 reached the girls singles final of the U.S. Open.
By now, father and daughter were dreaming big. But first, the player and the coach had to get on the same page.
IT WAS VALENTINE’S Day of 2018 at Pompey Park, a day for celebrating the bonds of love. And while those bonds between Corey Gauff and his daughter were strong, their relationship on the court was being strained.
Corey, a star point guard in high school in Delray Beach who’d gone on to help Georgia State reach its first NCAA tournament berth in 1991, had learned to coach like he’d been coached: exerting complete control.
“It’s what I was used to,” Corey says. “I say, ‘You do,’ and there’s no questioning that.”
Coco was, well, a young girl who wasn’t always feeling her dad’s approach. Occasionally, Coco was reduced to tears; at times, Corey was left steaming. And Candi, a high school state champion in the heptathlon who competed in track and field at Florida State, was often the courtside mediator.
This, for years, had been their dynamic. And it had worked … until it didn’t.
On that Valentine’s Day, Coco wasn’t getting to shots fast enough, and Corey let her know. Coco wasn’t hitting shots with enough authority, and Corey demanded more. The more Corey criticized her, the more Coco questioned him. The back-and-forth went on and on, like two groundstroke artists in an extended psychological rally, until Candi had finally seen enough.
She called for the play to stop. She walked toward the center net. She waved for both her husband and daughter to meet her.
“This is pretty serious here,” Candi told the two. “You guys say what you need to say, then go back and let’s try this again.”
That practice ended prematurely. The ride back home was tense. Shortly after they arrived, Candi pulled out her computer and typed out what she described as a “broad agenda,” a list of the family’s tennis goals. She printed out her list, then brought everyone together for a conference.
“She had to understand her job as a player,” Candi says. “And he had to understand his role as a coach.” Candi posed a question to each: For this to work, how do you want to be treated?
“I told her that if the coach is offering constructive criticism, that’s not an attack on you — you have to listen to him as a coach and not as a dad,” Candi says. “I told him, ‘You have to change your delivery … and your No. 1 job is to be a dad first.'”
Candi made Corey listen as Coco talked. She made Coco listen as Corey talked. Corey agreed to dial down the coaching style. Coco agreed to separate father from coach. Corey would work on better ways to deliver instructions. Coco would embrace the game plans he laid out.
And then Coco and Corey signed off, point by point, on Candi’s checklist.
“That was the pivotal point of the relationship,” Candi says. “In order for her to get better, he had to change. And they figured it out. The list is no longer needed.”
Gauff went on that year to become the No. 1 junior player in the world, won her first career junior grand slam title at the French Open and finished 2018 with a victory in the girls 18s singles final in the Orange Bowl championship.
“We’re still learning,” Coco says, “and my mom has done a good job with that. I always say that with my dad, I don’t always look at him as a coach — I just look at him as a dad trying to help his daughter play tennis.”
IT’S THE LAST week in July at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C., Gauff’s first event after Wimbledon. Her first qualifying match is being played on the tournament’s main court in front of nearly a full crowd — quite a contrast to her first qualifying match just a month earlier on a side court at Wimbledon, witnessed by more empty seats than fans.
Cocomania is in full effect.
“I think it’s crazy. Literally maybe four weeks ago not many people knew my name,” Gauff says after her straight-sets win over Maegan Manasse. “And now a lot of people do. … I’m adjusting to it.”
One of those people: Michelle Obama. While in DC, Gauff will get to meet the former first lady — an almost surreal experience for Coco. “She’s been in the White House since I was a little girl, and I grew up watching her,” says Gauff, who receives from Obama a signed copy of her book Becoming in exchange for a signed tennis racket. “She tweeted my name; I never thought she would know that I existed.”
But in the first round of the Citi Open, reality intervenes. After winning her two qualifying matches to reach the main draw, Gauff faces off against Zarina Diyas, a 25-year-old from Kazakhstan ranked No. 84 in the world. Throughout the match, there are flashes of Gauff’s brilliance; she paints the line with a forehand winner to even the second set at two games. But on this day Gauff is caught playing Diyas’ game — from the baseline — and the veteran’s experience pays off.
Diyas goes up 5-2 in the second, silencing the pro-Coco crowd and prompting Corey to come onto the court to attempt a match-saving pep talk. Gauff’s ground game is rattled. She’ll finish with 33 unforced errors and go on to lose nine of the last 11 games. And as Corey kneels directly in front of her, Gauff’s gaze is focused not at him but beyond him. It’s the look of a 15-year-old who, on this day, has just run into a more seasoned opponent.
“Every loss is something I learn from,” Gauff says afterward from the news conference podium, appearing composed despite the defeat. “I think I’ll learn a lot. Obviously, right now, I feel a little bit disappointed.”
But all is not lost. She will go on to claim the women’s doubles title with 17-year-old Caty McNally — their first WTA title — and do so without dropping a set. It’s the first time in Gauff’s career that she has headlined a WTA event. And her presence alone proves a factor in the Citi Open establishing an attendance record.
Three weeks prior, five days after Coco’s Wimbledon run had come to an end, the family had arrived home at Palm Beach Airport to a slew of reporters and cameras, all eager to document the moves of South Florida’s newest star.
“It’s been a roller coaster,” Gauff told reporters, the words Beautiful Confusion almost smirking from her sweatshirt. “Right now I’m going up. I don’t know when I’ll come back down and finally get back to normal.”
But as Coco will soon realize: When you’re living your new normal, there’s no going back.