The first thing Coco Gauff did after leaving the court in Arthur Ashe Stadium, with her first Grand Slam trophy in hand, was don a sponsor’s T-shirt proclaiming her as a champion. So it begins.
Gauff has been in the glaring lights of fame since she was a 15-year-old playing into the fourth-round at Wimbledon, but after winning the U.S. Open singles title on Saturday, those lights could become blinding and the fame distracting. Additional endorsement offers will pour in — commercial shoots, appearance opportunities, business projects, investment offers and invitations to A-list social events will pile up in the near and long term future.
Gauff has demonstrated a composed maturity in her time in the public eye, and she declared herself up for the challenge of becoming even more famous and rich, even as she tries to keep winning important tournaments.
“I’m ready,” Gauff said after she beat Aryna Sabalenka, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2. “I embrace it. I know how to keep my peace, but also embrace all of this around me.”
The level of fame that comes with being an American teenager winning the U.S. Open can be spellbinding and daunting for some. Gauff is the first since Serena Williams won in 1999 at the age of 17. Young athletes in every sport have been overwhelmed by early success, fame and money. They may lose focus, party too hard, tap out on the hunger that drove them to their first championship, or became bigheaded.
That does not seem to be an issue for Gauff, so far. After accepting her check for $3 million, Gauff casually thanked Billie Jean King, who was also on the stage, for fighting for equal pay for women, a gesture showcasing her perspective, humor and charm, all in one.
“She is so humble,” said Pere Riba, her coach, after the match. “Her work ethic is so strong, so professional and she has very good manners. Put all of that together and she will only get better. She can handle it all.”
Riba has only been working with Gauff, alongside Brad Gilbert, since June, right before Wimbledon. Gauff’s father, Corey Gauff, asked Riba to be his daughter’s coach this summer on a temporary basis that turned permanent. Coco Gauff said that her father recommended hiring Gilbert, too. But Corey Gauff remains a steady influence and inspiration.
“The most important person for Coco on the team is the dad,” Riba said. “The parents are really, really important for her.”
Late Saturday night, Corey Gauff emerged into the player garden, where family members and friends had gathered, while Coco Gauff answered questions at a news conference. They cheered and rushed over to him as he held the coach’s trophy, and he smiled humbly and distributed hugs.
Tennis wise, Gauff still has room to improve, a worrisome fact for opponents. She will probably add some strength to her impressive speed game, and will continue to shore up her forehand, which she mostly cured before the summer hard court circuit began.
“She still has to continue fixing,” Riba said. “There were old habits, and you have to keep cleaning these up every single day, continue working because it was a long time doing it that way. But she corrects really well.”
In the next few days Gauff’s schedule could be demanding. She will be asked to appear on national television programs and pose for photo shoots. She will be invited to parties. Celebrities will reach out and some, including former President Barack Obama, who watched Gauff’s first match at this year’s U.S. Open in Ashe, and posted his congratulations to her on social media Saturday, will express their admiration.
For players like Emma Radacanu, who won her first U.S. Open at 18 two years ago, claiming a major trophy at an early age brought riches and fame but not yet consistent tennis success. Since then, Radacanu has been ousted before the third round in the five Grand Slam tournaments she entered after her victorious U.S. Open.
But Gauff, whose career earnings before Saturday from singles and doubles topped $8 million, was playing in her fifth U.S. Open, and people have been pointing to her for years as the next great American champion. Success did not come in an instant.
“This is a big achievement,” she said, “But I feel like I’ve been used to this since I was basically 15 years old. In high school, doing online school, just used to it.”
Marion Bartoli, the 2013 Wimbledon champion, said on Sky Sports after the match that in the next few days Gauff’s head will be spinning “like a washing machine,” with all the attention and responsibilities facing her. But Riba said Gauff is not only prepared for that.
“Coco is ready for more,” he said.