American high schooler tennis star loses a student’s grant, discovers her voice

NEW YORK — Listen to Coco Gauff talk about tennis, and she scarcely seems like a 16-year-old. She seems like a veteran of the game.

Tune in to Gauff talks about the issues of the day, and she doesn’t seem like a clueless child. She seems like a grown-up, loaded up with information and understanding.

Hear her out talk about not having the option to work on driving since she lost her student’s license — and, at last, Gauff sounds her age.

“I despite everything need to take a shot at my stopping,” Gauff recognizes. “It’s so terrible.”

It’s tough to find time to work on that when there’s tennis to be played, and Gauff will be garnering plenty of attention again at the U.S. Open, which starts Monday.

A year ago, using a terrific first serve and ability to go from defense to offense, Gauff beat Venus Williams along the way to the fourth round at Wimbledon as the youngest qualifier in tournament history. Then she made it to the third round at Flushing Meadows before losing to 2018 champion Naomi Osaka in a match that ended in tears for the teen and a hug from the winner.

After collecting a singles trophy in Linz, Austria, last October — becoming the youngest WTA title winner since 2004 — Gauff began the 2020 Grand Slam season by defeating Williams again and winning a rematch against Osaka at the Australian Open en route to the fourth round there.

Gauff has a tough assignment in her first-round match at the U.S. Open, facing 31st-seeded Anastasija Sevastova, a 30-year-old from Latvia who was a semifinalist in New York two years ago.

“At her age, to have the awareness to see what’s going on in the real world, then the guts to actually speak out about it on social issues is just phenomenal at this age. She has an amazing platform, she knows that. I think she’s used it so well already,” said Martina Navratilova, who won 18 Grand Slam singles titles.

“I believe she has a possibility to truly have an effect on and off the court, so I am so glad to perceive what she’s done as such far away the court. On the court, I’m anticipating her development as a tennis player. There is a great deal there. It will be enjoyable to watch.”

Plenty of others anticipate big things from Gauff.

The American rising star wants, and aims for, greatness, certainly, but she draws a distinction between that goal and any sense of putting pressure on herself.

“From a year (ago), I have more confidence. But it’s not so much like an expectation — I have belief that I can win, but not so much ‘expecting,’ if that makes sense. I mean, I don’t try to put any expectations on myself. Whatever happens happens,” Gauff said. “And you just try your best to approach the moment with your best tennis and your best mentality. That’s what I’m going to do at the U.S. Open.”

So one win is just a win, one loss is just a loss — but to be learned from.

Beaten at Lexington, Kentucky, this month in the semifinals of her first tournament after tennis was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic, Gauff said afterward she would head to her hotel room and watch the defeat to try to understand what happened.

“I still don’t have a lot of matches under my belt,” said Gauff, who has played fewer than 70 on the WTA circuit. “I’m still learning and adjusting to the tour.”

That sort of perspective comes through when she discusses racial injustice and police brutality, including during an impromptu speech at a Black Lives Matter rally in Florida in June, when she implored the audience: “We must first love each other. … Second, we must take action. … It’s in your hands to vote for my future, for my brothers’ future and for your future.”

Gauff said she found out about two minutes beforehand that she would be addressing the crowd — and her nervousness was compounded because she stepped to the microphone after her grandmother, who is “really good at those type of things.”

“It was just definitely from the heart, and I think when you speak from the heart, you get the message that you want,” Gauff said. “The world was just finally waking up. … We need people to speak out.”

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