Coco Gauff is doing just fine, thank you very much. Just six weeks after testing positive for COVID-19 and subsequently withdrawing from the Olympic Games in Tokyo, the 17-year-old tennis wunderkind is eagerly anticipating a return to normal—which, unlike most teenagers her age, includes competing in the 2021 US Open. “Everything that’s happened just makes you appreciate life a lot more,” she tells ELLE.com. “I’m happy to be healthy and back on the court.”
Gauff announced her diagnosis to her 732k Instagram followers in July, immediately after learning the news. “I was disappointed at first, but I think everything happens for a reason,” she says, stressing that her new outlook is to be “negative in COVID, positive in life.” That includes being unbothered that the pandemic forced her to cancel her Sweet Sixteen last March. “I think the most awkward thing is when people are singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to you.”
Ahead of her triumphant return to Arthur Ashe Stadium, Gauff spoke with ELLE.com at the American Express Courts at Pier 76 in NYC about the Open, the Williams sisters, and the importance of self-care.
This year, you became the youngest American player to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal since Venus Williams in 1997. How does it feel?
It was definitely a cool achievement. I didn’t think that my first court final would happen at a French [Open], to be honest, but I’m glad that it did. I never thought of myself as a clay court player, but I’ve actually had results on there even though it’s not my favorite surface. Hopefully I can go even further next time.
What do you think of people calling you the next Venus or Serena?
It’s an honor to be compared to someone—they’re both so great on and off the court—but I just try to focus on being myself, because I’m never going to be them, and I don’t want to put the expectations on people that I’m gonna be like them. We don’t know what the future holds. I definitely want to inspire people the way that they inspired me, so being compared to them is something I don’t take lightly. They’re probably the two best women players to ever play, and they also broke so many boundaries for people of color and for women in general in sports. It’s a little bit of pressure [laughs] but I try to put the focus on myself and be the best me.
You’re very much a part of this legacy of female tennis players. What advice would you give to the next Coco coming up?
Love what you do, because if you don’t love what you do, it’s going to be very hard to succeed in it or at least enjoy success. One thing I’ve learned recently is that everything’s not about results and numbers—it’s more focused on the experience and how you treat others. That’s what I want people to remember most about me, not so much my accomplishments on the court. At the end of the day, the impact that I leave on another person is probably going to be bigger than any trophy that I win. Enjoy what you do and all the numbers and results and all that will come eventually.
I saw your sweet Instagram tribute to Kobe and Gigi Bryant. Do you have the “Mamba mentality” when you play tennis?
Yes, 100 percent. I’m a huge fan and he loved tennis. I never got to meet him, but he’d always say great things about me in interviews, and he even sent me a couple of signed books. He’s definitely been a person I looked up to even before I knew he was interested in tennis, but then that whole situation made it a lot more personal.
Mental health is a pertinent topic in sports right now. Has everything that’s happened with Naomi Osaka affected your own approach to mental and physical wellness?
It definitely brought up the conversation, but for me, in our household, mental health has always been a talked-about topic. Especially in the Black community, it’s something that’s kind of ignored, so growing up, my mom stressed the importance of journaling and talking about our feelings. I never felt uncomfortable speaking about it because it’s a real issue that pretty much every person in the world deals with in some way. Everything that she was going through brought light to it and showed a lot of other people that they’re not the only ones going through something.
What are your favorite ways to practice self-care?
Sleeping in. I like to be in my room a lot—it’s like my safe haven. Journaling is something that I always enjoyed doing—it releases a lot of stress and confusion going on in yourself. And my favorite thing to do is read by the water. I just finished The Young Elites by Marie Lu, and I’m starting the second book of the series. Maybe a massage or two.
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Tell me about your collaboration with New Balance. What made you choose the ‘90s as your inspiration?
My parents were born in the ‘70s, but the ‘90s was their favorite era. Our house has always been influenced by the music and movies. I loved—and still love—Aaliyah. It’s also a style that I’m comfortable in because it’s fashionable and comfortable—I’m a big comfort person and also like being cute too. I like the term “baddie on a budget” and the ‘90s was definitely that kind of thing. I wanted to pay homage to it with a little Gen Z twist.
What can we expect from you at the US Open?
Hopefully a trophy would be nice! [Laughs] I’m excited about my on-court outfit too. Last tournament I took a break from the [nail] extensions, but this time I was like, “I’m going to get the nails!” I like playing with them; I feel like it looks good on TV.
How do you like to get pumped up for a match?
A couple hours before, I try to keep myself relaxed by reading my book or watching whatever Netflix series I’m watching, and then right before, I listen to super hype music to get the blood pumping. I always have to remind myself that I’m living my dream and to not take it too seriously.
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