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Cocomania – can rising tennis star Coco Gauff handle the pressure of expectation?

Cocomania – can rising tennis star Coco Gauff handle the pressure of expectation?
Coco Gauff in action against Mirra Andreeva in the second round of the US Open in Flushing Meadows, New York, on 30 August 2023. (Photo: Robert Prange / Getty Images)

Newly crowned US Open tennis champion Coco Gauff has been under scrutiny for years. Following her triumphant moment on home soil, the heat and scrutiny around the teenager is only going to increase.

Much like a plethora of jobs in life, being a professional sports star comes with pressure. However, this particular occupation is one of few where your work is under constant scrutiny from the general public who watch, follow and critique your work.

The rise of social media, which in its purest form is meant to connect sports people with their followers, is increasingly a source of their misery as faceless bots enjoy the kick of dragging down others. Sportspeople are regular victims as their wins, and losses, are all there for all to see and dissect as they please.

‘I see you’

Following her come-from-behind 2-6, 6-3, 6-2 over Belarus’s Aryna Sabalenka in the final of the US Open on Saturday, 9 September, American teenage sensation Coco Gauff acknowledged that she was aware of her detractors on social media.

Some are faceless, while others have previously been bold enough to trash or offer constructive criticism and support to the starlet in their personal capacities.

Cocomania Gauff

Coco Gauff reacts after defeating Aryna Sabalenka at the US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows on 9 September 2023. (Photo: Sarah Stier / Getty Images)

Coco Gauff reacts after returning a shot against Aryna Sabalenka at the US Open final on 9 September 2023. (Photo: Sarah Stier / Getty Images)

“I felt like people were like ‘it was all hype’. I see the comments. People think I don’t see, but I’m very aware of ‘Tennis Twitter’. I know your usernames. I know who’s talking trash,” said the 19-year-old after she triumphed in front of her home support at Flushing Meadows.

With the victory – her maiden Grand Slam title after she was felled by Poland’s Iga Świątek in the French Open final in 2022 – she became the youngest American to win the US Open since Serena Williams in 1999.

Throughout my life, I was always the youngest to do things, which added hype that I didn’t want.

Coincidentally, Gauff announced herself to the global tennis community in 2019. Then only 15, and at the tournament as a wild card entry, the Florida native beat the older Williams sister 6-4 6-4 at that year’s Wimbledon.

Despite the fact that Venus was 39 and far from her belligerent best of the early 2000s, it was still one of the shocks in sport that year. It also saw the prominence of Gauff rise.

By then she was already a prodigy on the radar of many tennis followers. After all, in 2017, a 13-year-old finished runner-up to fellow American Amanda Anisimova in the junior division of the US Open.

During that tournament, Gauff set the record of being the youngest junior Grand Slam finalist since Martina Hingis in 1993.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Coco Gauff burns bright after being crowned the new queen of tennis

“Throughout my life, I was always the youngest to do things, which added hype that I didn’t want,” Gauff told Behind the Racquet in 2020, citing the rising scrutiny on her, as well the comparisons to the Williams sisters.

“I realised I needed to start playing for myself and not other people. For about a year I was really depressed. That was the toughest year for me.”

Coco Gauff and parents Corey and Candi Gauff with the US Open winner’s trophy outside Arthur Ashe Stadium at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York on 9 September 2023. (Photo: Frey / TPN / Getty Images)

Three years later, in what has been the best year of her career to date – with three titles under her belt on the women’s tour – Gauff seems to be more mature and equipped to handle all the praise and criticism that comes with being a young and talented sports star. More so, a black woman.

“I’m still me … I don’t think I’ll ever [see] myself as a celebrity. I’m just a person who plays tennis, and millions of people like to watch me play tennis,” Gauff told Associated Press following her US Open success.

“But I’m going to be the same person after this. Yes, my life has changed. But I don’t think it’s going to affect how I approach my day-to-day life.”

Words of wisdom

She will do well to follow her own advice to avoid following in the footsteps of past prodigies such as Eugenie Bouchard and Sloane Stephens, and most recently Emma Raducanu.

Though with the latter, who also won the US Open as a teen, constant injuries have been a hindrance as well. Nevertheless, in an interview earlier this year, Raducanu said she sometimes wished she had never won the US Open title as an 18-year-old in 2021.

I’m in a very privileged position. I’m getting paid to do what I love and getting support to do what I love. That’s something that I don’t take for granted.

“You have to be on guard because there are a lot of sharks out there. People in the industry, especially with me because I was 18, now 20, they see me as a piggy bank,” the Briton said as quoted by CNN.

“It has been difficult to navigate. I have been burnt a few times. I have learnt to keep my circle as small as possible.”

Gauff seems to have her wits about her in this regard. Especially as she still leans heavily on her parents Corey and Candi Gauff. Over and above this, she seems to be aware of the world that exists beyond the tennis court. As she demonstrated when asked about the pressure of being a tennis player recently.

Coco Gauff with her parents after her three-set victory over Aryna Sabalenka in the US Open on 9 September 2023. (Photo: Clive Brunskill / Getty Images)

“I realise in a way that it’s pressure. But also, it’s not. I mean, there are people struggling to feed their families, people who don’t know where their next meal is going to come from, people who have to pay their bills,” said the tennis star.

“That’s real pressure, that’s real hardship, that’s real life. I’m in a very privileged position. I’m getting paid to do what I love and getting support to do what I love. That’s something that I don’t take for granted.”

It’s this type of attitude that will help her as she deals with the expectation of constantly being compared to the Williams sisters, in a sports-crazy country that has also produced legends such as Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali and Tom Brady. To name but just a few. DM

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