Call Me Coco: A Lesson in Character
It’s not often you get the chance to meet a child prodigy. It’s even better when they turn out to be more special than you anticipated. Raising a child is difficult under any circumstances as is being a parent in general. They challenge you in ways you never imagined. Raising a prodigy must be even more stressful. You wouldn’t think so if you witnessed tennis superstar Coco Gauff.
The annual Winston-Salem Open Tennis Tournament is held in August, and I’m reminded of when my youngest son and I worked the tournament in 2019, and it provided even more fun than we expected. That year’s tournament included an exhibition match between Coco Gauff, the (at the time) 15-year-old tennis phenome, who took the world by storm when she defeated Venus Williams in the first round of Wimbledon just a few weeks earlier in the summer. She eventually lost in the fourth round to former number one Simona Halep. I should add it was her first grand slam tournament making the achievement all the more fascinating. The crowds at the All-England Club and behind the TV screens were mesmerized by this young lady showing such great power and finesse against players far more experienced than her. And at a time when Serena Williams at 37 was gently progressing down the other side of her illustrious career and the tennis world was looking for its next great American star.
Coco displayed her incredible talent and skills in multiple ways here at our home ATP 250 tournament. Even though it was a men’s tournament, the women’s exhibition match between Coco and Ashleigh Barty (current number one at the time) was clearly a main draw for the sellout crowd on a Wednesday night in August.
Before the night of the big match, however, Coco provided some younger fans with a special surprise. Arriving the day before, on Tuesday, Coco made more than just an appearance at a high school tennis clinic put on by the USTA at the Wake Forest Tennis Center. All eight indoor courts were full of young players, including my son, when suddenly, in walks Coco. She made her way to court one and began hitting with each player, giving them the chance of a lifetime to say they hit with a professional and future superstar. She didn’t stop there; she made her way one by one to each court and each participant hitting balls with them. Giving them a moment they would remember for years to come. And to think many of the players themselves were older than Coco by a year or more. Afterward, she signed autographs for the players before leaving.
As I witnessed Coco during the tennis clinic, and later playing doubles with her coach along with her father Corey, and hitting partner, I saw the incredible talent this young teen possessed. What I also saw was a strong character, a humble talent, a drive and passion for the game, someone who’s grounded and appreciated her newfound fame and recognition, and respected not only her opponents but also her fans young and old alike. She never shied away from them or turned down an autograph or picture even though they surrounded her every move. This takes a tremendous amount of discipline, patience and maturity, three things not generally found in many 15-year-olds. She went on to win the next night against Barty, producing a spectacle for the fans.
Just one week later she would put on an even bigger show in Ashe Stadium at the US Open in New York when she played against defending champion Naomi Osaka. That match would end memorably despite Coco’s loss when Osaka asked Coco to be a part of the post-match interview and address her fans. Osaka recognized the incredible potential in Coco, as Halep did at Wimbledon when she predicted Coco would one day be in the top 10.
Fast forward to June 4, 2022, in Paris, and Coco made her first singles Grand Slam Final in the French Open losing to another top-ranked opponent, Iga Swiatek of Poland. Afterward, she rose through the ranks to 13th in the world. She’s getting closer to that top 10 ranking.
I’m glad my son and I were able to witness Coco in person; not just on the court but off as well. I’m even more glad that he got to see someone at this talent level with such immense popularity, display such class, courtesy, humbleness and genuine kindness in nature. It shows once again that you can have a great talent and manage it with grace, being a good person and presenting a true model of character for others to follow. A fine example for the youths out there from one of their own.
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