At 16, the American tennis prodigy can't legally vote yet in the U.S. But that hasn't stopped one of the sport's next big stars from emerging as an outspoken leader among peers.
In the viral video, the crowd erupted in support of Cori Gauff. But she wasn't standing on a tennis court – she was standing behind a podium and microphone.
If the summer of 2019 was when the American teenage tennis sensation known as Coco let her racket do the talking, the summer of 2020 has been when the 16 year old has found her voice.
Outspoken on social media, Gauff has used her platform to speak up during the Black Lives Matter movement, though her most notable moment came from a speech in her hometown of Delray Beach, FL., which was picked up by news organisations around the world.
“I demand change now,” Gauff said at a June 4 rally, adding, to the crowd: “You need to use your voice. No matter how big or small your platform is, you need to use your voice.”
Gauff will not be of legal age, 18, to vote in November’s U.S. presidential election. Though her memorable runs at last year’s Wimbledon and US Open tournaments made her an overnight sensation, she has, at such a young age, arrived not only as a tennis prodigy, but a cultural and political one, too.
“Why am I here at 16 demanding change?” Gauff continued in her passionate speech. “It breaks my heart. I’m fighting for the future. … For my brothers, for my future grandchildren.”
Just over a year ago is when Gauff broke into the mainstream, already a much-talked-about up-and-comer in the world of women’s tennis as a junior Grand Slam champion.
Having won three qualifying matches to make the main draw at Wimbledon, she was pitted against five-time champion there and Olympic gold medallist Venus Williams, a childhood hero.
On the No.1 Court and in front of an international TV audience, she’d defeat Williams, and then go onto make the fourth round, with two more stirring victories. She lost to eventual champion Simona Halep of Romania.
In the months following, Gauff, limited by the number of tournaments she could compete in because of her under-18 status, soared in terms of both ranking and popularity.
She won her first WTA doubles title in Washington, DC, with good friend Caty McNally; made the third round of the US Open and lost to defending champion Naomi Osaka in a much-heralded primetime clash; won her first singles title in Europe in October; and then beat both Venus and Naomi at the Australian Open in January, a match that drew equal fanfare Down Under.
Her ranking, frozen due to the coronavirus pandemic, is No.52 in the world on the WTA, just off her career high of No.49 in February.
Last August, she appeared on the cover of Teen Vogue with the headline, “The Ball Is In Her Court.” ESPN did a one-hour special on her earlier this year. With representation by the same agency as Roger Federer, she’s seen as one of the most sought-after names in the sport.
While the heyday of teenage stars in women’s tennis has mostly passed – think Jennifer Capriati, Martina Hingis, the Williams sisters, and more – Gauff’s success at such a young age in this era has been a headline-grabber, but so too has her outspokenness, authenticity, and maturity at such a young age.
“She’s become an activist in the wake of [Black Lives Matter]", said well-known American Olympic commentator Mary Carillo in an interview with TSN.
After she lost at the US Open last year to Osaka, the then-world No.1 from Japan made the extraordinary move of inviting Gauff to do the on-court interview with her. Coco agreed. The moment was lauded for its sportsmanship by Osaka, who said she wanted to give Gauff the chance to address the crowd that had come to see her, even after a loss.
Tennis has seen many of its young stars of color speak up in recent months, including the aforementioned Osaka, Venus and Serena Williams, American Frances Tiafoe and France’s Gael Monfils, among many others.
But none of them are quite as young as Gauff, who also boasts over 200,000 followers on Twitter, nearly 700,000 on Instagram, and a growing fanbase on TikTok, where she has 55,000 followers.
While her account has been a collection of the sort of lip-sync videos that TikTok is known for, she has been outspoken there, too, posting a chilling video in late May that got over 35,000 views. It concluded: “I am using my voice. Will you use yours?”
On the tennis court, with Tokyo 2020 pushed to next year, Gauff has even more chances to move her ranking up once the pro tour resumes. She currently sits at ninth among U.S. women while only the top four are picked for Team USA.
2016 Olympians Serena (who owns one singles golds and three in doubles), Sloane Stephens, and Madison Keys rank ahead of her, as does the sport’s most recent Grand Slam champion, Australian Open winner Sofia Kenin.
The cutoff for tennis qualification has moved to early June of 2021.
While fans will have to wait for the scheduled tennis season – the fan-less US Open in September and a host of other events later in the year – to see Gauff back on the court, she continues to be her true self on social media.
A Black Lives Matter call to action is pasted in both her Instagram and TikTok profiles, though much of the content has returned to what a teenager more commonly focuses on at 16: Music tastes, dance numbers, and plain silliness.
If her breakout year is any indication, Gauff's tennis – and her voice – are going to be around for a long, long time.