CoCo Gauff treading a path laid out by Williams sisters
Venus and Serena seeing a generation of black women players follow in their footsteps
Gauff after the match had ended. Photo: Carl Recine/Reuters
Twenty-two years ago in Indian Wells, a 16-year-old Venus Williams, still ranked only 211th in the world, was reeling from a brutal loss to Lindsay Davenport when she was asked about the impact she had already left on young black women in tennis. “I think that I’ve had a good effect,” she said. “Generally, you don’t see too many black people playing tennis, not on the tour, not anywhere you go really. It’s mostly because tennis is kind of an expensive sport at times … I think I’ve really helped bring it. If they see me on TV [they say]: ‘Who is this? This is Venus? She plays tennis? I’ve never seen a [black] girl playing tennis.’”
In the decades since, Williams and her sister Serena have seen a talented generation of black women players emerge, even if Venus has sometimes suffered at their hands. She has lost to Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys and Naomi Osaka in recent years. On Monday afternoon, Williams faced the latest player she has influenced, Cori Gauff. The 15-year-old promptly dismantled her 6-4, 6-4. Gauff’s story was almost too good to be true: a teenager beating her hero in her grand slam debut. Her serve is already lethal, while her hooked topspin forehand and her backhand tore through the Wimbledon grass. But the most impressive thing about Gauff was the composure and intelligence with which she carried herself to victory.
The fact that Gauff conducts herself with such ease is partly due to the path beaten by the Williams sisters. Their presence was always political, their success always told in the context of two black girls infiltrating a country club sport. It began more than two decades ago when the Williams arrived on tour with a single-minded confidence that, coupled with the bravado of their father Richard, elicited hostility and resentment.
In Venus’s first US Open her semi-final opponent, Irina Spirlea, deliberately bumped into her as they changed ends. Afterwards, Spirlea snapped: “She thinks she’s the fucking Venus Williams.” Both Williams sisters boycotted Indian Wells – Venus for 15 years, Serena for 14 – after the racist insults they received from the crowd in 2001. They have even had to defend themselves against their own competitors: “Being black only helps them,” said Martina Hingis to Time 2001. “Many times they get sponsors because they are black.”
Venus is widely considered the more mellow of the two, but when they arrived on tour it was the elder Williams who radiated swagger and confidence. She set the tone, dashing around the court at warp speed, chest puffed out. She had to. She was first of the two to turn professional and she willingly absorbed the first blows that the world swung at them. Her presence allowed her younger sister to thrive, while rivals resented her for it. “Serena’s more friendly,” said Davenport in the 2000 book Venus Envy. “At least she can bring herself to say hi. Venus can’t – or won’t – even speak. Venus likes to give the impression that she’s so great, that she’s ‘Da bomb’, or whatever.”
When Venus was 14, just a few months younger than Gauff is now, she showed early signs of her confidence, telling ABC that she was ready to beat the world’s best players. The interviewer tilted his head and frowned, puzzled by her audacity: “You say it so easily. Why?” Venus’s father Richard ran into the picture, threatening to cut the interview.
The gift the Williamses have bestowed on the likes of Keys, Stephens, Gauff and, to an extent, Osaka is the space to be themselves. After Monday’s victory Gauff was asked what her goals were for the rest of the tournament. Gauff, who had just won the first grand slam match of her career, shrugged: “My goal is to win it.” This time, nobody said a word. Coverage of Gauff’s rise so far has focused on tennis and her records.
But, then again, Gauff has already decided that she does not want to be another tennis player. The standard social media biography for tennis players is something to the effect of “I play tennis”. Gauff’s Instagram biography, meanwhile, is “#prayforsudan”, and a link that leads to a Unicef press release detailing “Children killed, injured, detained and abused amid escalating violence and unrest in Sudan.” Her page has carried references to Pride and crises around the world. You can learn more about her beliefs than almost anyone in the women’s or men’s top 20.
During Black History Month and Juneteenth, Gauff used her social media to post details of African American history. She was surprised to see that her posts received waves of replies from people who didn’t know what she was talking about. It seems to have made her more determined to talk about black history. She is not an athlete who will stick to sports.
Gauff knows her history well enough to understand the influence of the woman she beat on Monday. She had wanted to let both Williams sisters know how much they meant to her, but she was always too shy. It was only as she shook Venus’s hand that she realised that it was time. She says that her message was simple: “Thank you for everything you’ve done. I wouldn’t be here without you.” – Guardian