NEW YORK — You do not need to know Candi and Corey Gauff very well to see that the job they did raising their phenom of a daughter belongs in textbooks.
Especially in a sport that is notorious for parental interference, grift and abuse, it is no small wonder — and a great credit to their family — that Coco Gauff emerged from instant stardom at 15 to become a 19-year-old who is stunningly mature, unusually thoughtful, socially aware and very much on track to become the tennis player everyone expected her to be.
But what they have done over the last six weeks might be just as impressive. They’ve more or less disappeared.
As Gauff has advanced through this breakthrough hard court summer and now into the US Open semifinals, so much of the focus has been – as it should be – on the wins coinciding with the assembly of a new coaching team led by Pere Riba and Brad Gilbert.
It is a storyline that hits you in the face, particularly when those men – along with her hitting partner and trainer – are on the front row of her coaching box and can often be heard on live microphones barking encouragement and instruction during the matches.
But what hasn’t been talked about as much is how little we have seen of Gauff’s parents, who until recently were always front and center.
“They’re just really my support system,” Coco Gauff said Tuesday after defeating Jelena Ostapenko 6-0, 6-2 to book her semifinal spot on Thursday evening. “They’re helping me remember, you know, my clothes and everything, and my dad is still sending me scouting reports for every match. But my mom is more so, you know, just being mom. My dad just being dad other than the scouting report part.”
As Gauff became a bigger presence on the WTA Tour the last few years, we got to know quite a bit about her parents. Her father played college basketball at Georgia State, got Coco into tennis very early and was essentially her primary coach all the way up the ranks. Her mother was an elite heptathlete at Florida State.
Though they had brought in a few coaches to help out over the years, the Gauffs were more or less what in tennis parlance is called “the team.” And that wasn’t a bad thing. It would be hard to imagine sending a 16-year old girl out to play tennis all over the world without that kind of family support. Unlike some of the horror stories that have marred women’s tennis in particular, they seemed like supportive parents and grounded people who weren’t rushing their daughter to do things before she was ready.
And if they were, it certainly never showed up in the way Coco has comported herself or the perspective with which she approaches the sport.
“At first I used to think negative things, like, why is there so much pressure, why is this so hard, blah, blah, blah,” she said Tuesday. “I realize in a way it’s pressure, but 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.
“That’s real pressure, that’s real hardship, that’s real life. I’m in a very privileged position. I have a lucky life, and so I should enjoy it. I know there are millions of people who probably want to be in this position that I am now, so instead of saying why this, why that, I should just be, like, ‘Why not me? Why am I not enjoying this?’ I should. I’m having so much fun doing it. I should not think about the results and think about this. I’m living a lucky life and I’m so blessed. I don’t want to take it for granted.”
How many 19-year-olds in any walk of life, much less the unusual one she has navigated, even have those thoughts, much less the ability to express them so well? Star athlete or not, those are the words of someone who was raised right.
So, maybe it should not be surprising that the Gauffs made a well-timed move to take a step back, at least on the tennis side. They didn’t make a big deal about it. They didn’t announce it.
But it was notable that when she won the title in Cincinnati right before the US Open, her parents weren’t in the picture. And her father has spent his time here sitting away from the family during matches, even doing laps around Arthur Ashe Stadium while Coco was battling Caroline Wozniacki.
“He gets too nervous,” she said.
It may seem like a small thing, but it isn’t. Dads are allowed to get nervous. Coaches are not. And it suggests an understanding that to get to the next level as a player, it was time for Gauff to surround herself with a professional team with parents playing the role they’re meant to play.
“My parents have continued to be my advocates,” Gauff said. “When you’re working with a team that you just met – well, now they know me well – but I guess in the beginning, my parents would have to explain to them what works with me, what doesn’t. I’m still learning to speak up and say things that I don’t like and do like. Just from being coached my whole life, being young, I’ve just been used to saying yes, yes, yes, even in situations where I wanted to say no.”
Now, Gauff can say yes or no to whatever she wants. She’s not a nascent prodigy anymore but a mature young woman who is growing into her career and on the verge of doing special, special things.
When that process unfolds on the biggest stages in the sport, with the world watching from age 15, it can’t be easy to navigate when it’s time for the parents to take a backseat – in this case, figuratively and literally in how her coaching box is arranged.
But the Gauffs seem to have an understanding that just being parents is an important enough job. And Coco seems ready to stand on her own two feet – maybe with a big trophy in the near future.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coco Gauff takes charge of tennis career after parents laid foundation