Teenager Coco Gauff looking to be one of the greats

Coco Gauff celebrated her high school graduation last May by taking a trip to Paris and playing in the French Open.

She recently acquired a driver’s license and among her favorite music playlists, you may find “The City Girls,” a rap music act most aging tennis journalists (and probably fans) are hilariously unfamiliar with.

When Gauff took some time away from the WTA tour grind after advancing to the quarterfinals of the US Open in September, she went home to Florida and then made a visit back to New York City for a vacation that did not involve tennis.

For the first time in months she got to put the racquet down and be a teenager.

“It was nice to walk around the city with my brothers and not have to think about tennis for a few days,” Gauff said. “It’s an amazing place. It was the first time I went there for something other than a tournament. You can just walk around and be yourself there.”

This week, the 18-year-old, whom many consider to be the next superstar in women’s tennis, will compete against a stacked field at the San Diego Open at Barnes Tennis Center seeking her third career professional singles title.

Gauff will also compete in doubles with partner Jessica Pegula, with whom she won the National Bank Open title in Toronto in August.

With a world No. 8 ranking, almost $3 million in career earnings in the bank, a New Balance endorsement that makes her a regular presence on TV and a game that seemingly gets better by the day, Gauff appears to be a potentially worthy successor of her idols, Venus and Serena Williams.

Pressure?

“I just enjoy playing,” Gauff said. “This is what I always wanted to do. I have big goals and if I keep working hard, I know I can achieve them. I love tennis and want to be great.”

Gauff will be one of seven top-10 WTA players when the San Diego Open gets rolling today.

She is seeded seventh in the 32-player draw, and will have to work through a field lined with talent in order to capture her third career singles title.

Overall, the draw includes 16 of the top 20 ranked players in the world including current No. 1 Iga Swiatek, No. 3 Anelt Kontaveit, No. 4 Paula Badosa, No. 5 Pegula, No. 7 Aryna Sabalenka and No. 10 Caroline Garcia.

Also playing are former Grand Slam champions Garbine Muguruza, Sofia Kenin, Jelena Ostapenko, Petra Kvitotoka and American’s Danielle Collins and Madison Keys.

CoCo Vandeweghe, a San Diego native, is in the bracket as a wild-card entry.

San Diego has not seen high-level women’s tennis like this since the days when Billie Jean King played at the San Diego Sports Arena and sent a message to the world that the ladies deserve attention, too.

“It’s a very strong tournament,” Gauff said. “This is the kind of field you normally see at a major. San Diego is an amazing place, and I think the way it fit in the calendar just worked for a bunch of players. You have to play your best to win here. That’s what I like about it. It’s a challenge.”

Legendary player and current broadcaster Chris Evert, who won 18 singles titles, has observed Gauff throughout her rise from talented junior player to professional.

“Coco is special,” Evert said. “She has the talent but also the mindset. She is amazingly mature for a girl her age. It’s all there for her. She just needs to keep following her path and she will be one of the greats. My advice to her would be: just stay on your path. Serena had that mindset.”

Serena.

The one Coco calls the “GOAT” as in “Greatest of All Time” looms over every woman who plays tennis going forward.

Williams is said to be retiring after winning 23 Grand Slam titles and dominating the sport like no one ever has.

Althea Gibson came up from Clarendon County, SC, to win 11 Grand Slams and 56 titles overall and often played at tennis venues that did not accept Black people as human beings let alone as members.

Venus and Serena Williams famously came up from the hard public courts of Compton.

This is the legacy Gauff is walking with and she is comfortable with it.

“Venus and Serena were my icons, I watched tennis because of them,” Gauff said. “It’s surreal. I know young girls look up to me but I am just a normal person. I hope I can inspire them the way they did me. I just want to win.”

Carter is a freelance writer.