Dr. Jessica Johnson: The making of the first Coco

When Coco Gauff won this year’s U.S. Open women’s singles title at just 19 years of age, there were immediate comparisons to Serena Williams, who took home her first U.S. Open trophy when she 17 in 1999. With Gauff’s star soaring in women’s tennis, we can view her triumph as a passing of the mantle since Williams retired last year. Also, looking back at Gauff’s first Grand Slam match victory at Wimbledon four years ago against Venus Williams, Gauff getting to championship status was, as tennis great Chris Evert recently stated, “(N)ot a matter of if, but when.”

Two of Gauff’s most admirable attributes are that she is humble and gracious as a talented and elite athlete. After defeating her U.S. Open opponent Aryna Sabalenka, Gauff gave her a hug when meeting at the net. Gauff then knelt in prayer, clutched her racket and thanked God. Tears of joy were flowing as she took in this notable feat of her early professional career. In a post-match interview, Gauff paid homage to those who were trailblazers before her and opened doors for African American women in tennis. It was inspiring to see that Gauff knows her sport’s history as she began by mentioning Althea Gibson, who was the first Black player to win the French Championships (now the French Open) in 1956.

Gibson also won back-to-back Wimbledon singles’ titles in 1957 and 1958, but even with her stellar victories, racism and segregation were the toughest obstacles that Gibson faced before she stepped on the court. Gibson played during some of the most intense moments of the civil rights era that included the furious resistance the Black Little Rock Nine students encountered as they integrated Arkansas’ Central High School in ‘57. Seven years earlier, women’s tennis champion Alice Marble had to push for Gibson to get a fair opportunity to compete in the U.S. Open, which was then known as the United States National Championships.

Gibson’s prominence in tennis came two generations before Venus and Serena shocked the world coming out of Compton, California. Gauff and other young Black female tennis players have looked up to the Williams sisters as role models in a sport where they are underrepresented, and I think one of the strongest qualities of Venus and Serena’s legacy for Gauff and others who will follow is the astute example they set in landing endorsement deals. The “King Richard” biopic showed how Venus shrewdly negotiated with Nike before accepting a $12 million contract with Reebok when she was 15. Serena has earned north of $350 million in endorsements according to Essentially Sports, and some of her big brands include Gucci, Nike, and Gatorade.

Two of Gauff’s largest endorsement deals are with New Balance and Beats by Dre, and her annual off-court earnings are estimated to be around $4 million, so she is well on her way to building a financial empire. I smiled when viewing Gauff’s response to a question from someone who asked her how she will spend her $3 million U.S. Open prize money during a live chat with fans on X (formerly Twitter). Laughing, Gauff stated that she does not have any debt and still lives with her parents. I’m sure her mother and father are teaching her how to save and invest wisely.

As Gauff rides this wave of adulation for her U.S. Open win, she is mature enough to know that folks will soon be looking for her next great accomplishment as she prepares to make her first appearance at the China Open in Beijing next month. Her mother proudly pointed out in a “Today Show” interview featuring their family that Gauff is a very “self-disciplined person” with a drive to achieve that comes from within. Gauff’s drive is also heavily rooted in her Christian faith, and when reflecting on her disappointing quarter-final loss at the French Open earlier this year, she said it was a “heartbreak,” but she “realized (that) God puts you through tribulations and trials.” She came to appreciate her U.S. Open victory more because it was not an easy path to get there.

Gauff is just on the beginning trajectory of her pro tennis journey. While her success has prompted many to laud her as the “next Serena,” I think that we are witnessing the making of the “first Coco,” which will be just as remarkable as this young tennis champion builds her own legacy.

Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter @JjSmojc. Her opinion does not necessarily represent the views of The Lima News or its owner, AIM Media.