By Ashleigh Fields
(This post was originally published on Afro.)
Cori “CoCo” Gauff is the youngest athlete to lead the new wave of Black tennis players and captivate the American sports scene. At 19 years old, she is the most youthful challenger to reach the elite stage of semifinals at the U.S. Open since Serena Williams in 2001.
The youngster has dominated in the sport, beating some of the best– including Maria Sakkari at the D.C. Mubadala Citi Open and, more recently, Jelena Ostapenka on Sept. 5. at the U.S. Open. Thousands of fans, including her father, have been rooting for her day in and out amidst the humidity at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, N.Y.
The tennis star says she has to remain focused even though a quarterfinal victory means only two games remain to be crowned champion.
“You can’t think like that,” Gauff said in a press conference after her match. “I’m still in the mindset that I’m in the beginning of the tournament. That’s what I have learned in the past [from] being in quarterfinals.”
“Before, I would think, ‘close to the end.’ But right now, I have the mentality of ‘I still have another two weeks to play.’ That’s where my mind is at. Then, obviously when it’s over, it’s over. But right now, I’m just saying, ‘another two weeks.’”
The athlete gave a strong performance at the Mubadala Citi Open this summer, and she continues to press for greatness.
The special tournament provided a closer shot at equal opportunities for female tennis athletes and proved to be an open display of the talent that prevails within the Black community. The tennis world has recently welcomed newcomers like Hailey Baptiste and Sloane Stephens. Seasoned professionals like Frances Tiafoe and Christian Eubanks also rose to the occasion – not only by serving up amazing performances on the court for the crowd but also by pouring into the local community along the way.
Tiafoe, ranked tenth in the world, announced his own fund in July that will support aspiring tennis professionals in the National Junior Tennis and Learning program across the country. The organization has 270 chapters and supports 130,000 children nationwide.
“Keep sticking to your progress every day, have goals. When you achieve those goals, keep trying to strive for more,” Tiafoe said to his fans at the Mubadala Citi Open. “Never think any dream is too big. I think everything is achievable if you put your mind to it. Ultimately day to day, play as much tennis as you can and enjoy the game. Hopefully we can see a lot more guys on the tour. That’s the plan.”
Tiafoe’s family immigrated to the United States from Sierra Leone in the 1990s, and his father got a job working to construct the infamous Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Md. After its completion, his father got a job on the grounds as a custodian where Tiafoe and his brother would soon live and train. The high level of training and exposure eventually led to him earning the title of US Junior National Champion.
Eubanks, a star in his own right, commented on the recent success of those he played in his youth.
“I think that the support, it’s a lot different. I see a lot more people that I grew up with. I see a lot more people I played junior tournaments with, their parents, and they want to stop and say hello, which is kind of, it’s kind of nostalgic…” said Eubanks. “I think obviously a lot of that comes from Venus and Serena’s dominance for so many years, that little Black girls can look on T.V. and see someone that looks like them excelling. It naturally feeds them right into the sport. It makes total sense.”
Though they are basking in the spotlight now, Gauff, Tiafoe, and Eubanks are all walking a path laid out for them by the great Black tennis legends of generations prior.
Arthur Ashe was one of the first Black male players to take the American Tennis Association by storm, winning three Grand Slam titles and becoming the only Black man ever to win the singles titles at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and the Australian Open in the 1970s. The main court for the U.S. Open and the largest arena in the world are named in his honor.
Eubanks credits the camaraderie and storied history of those who came before him as a pillar for his own achievements.
“I think it’s been a while since we have had that type of group so it’s really cool, really cool moment to be on that court and look across and Ben [Shelton], and then look to my left and see Frances [Tiafoe] and Michael [Mmoh], because we’ve all been good friends for years,” Eubanks continued.
Similar to Gauff, Shelton recently beat Tiafoe to advance to the U.S. Open semifinals at the remarkable age of 20 years old. Together, the two mark the first time multiple Americans age 20 or younger have made it to the semifinals of the same Grand Slam since Venus and Serena Williams in 2000 at Wimbledon. As the tournaments continue, the players have shown a cemented effort to continue installing their passion for tennis in upcoming players, supporters, and fans.
“I don’t know how much the ticket prices cost or anything, but for people to pay money to see me and wait after the trophy ceremony – in this heat – to ask for an autograph, I try to sign as many as I can,” said Gauff who has even shared personal items as memorabilia on request.
“A lot of them were kids. I remember being in that moment. They asked for my earrings and hair ties and everything. Usually I don’t mind giving. I always try to. Sometimes I try to ration it out, because I am going to another tournament,” Gauff expressed. “I love doing it. Seeing their reactions afterwards is what makes me really happy, just seeing kids just really enjoying me. Because I remember being in that moment.”
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