How Coco Gauff Overcame Self-Doubt To Win Her First Grand Slam Singles Title
by Peggy Shinn
At the 2023 US Open, Coco Gauff did what many had expected for years. The 19-year-old tennis prodigy won her first Grand Slam tennis tournament.
To reach that point, Gauff had to overcome more than just nerves. Since she made her Grand Slam debut at Wimbledon at age 15 — the youngest in the Open Era to ever reach the main draw of Wimbledon — she has faced pressure and self-doubt.
“It’s been a long journey to this point,” Gauff said after the U.S. Open win. “I think people put a lot of pressure on me to win, and I felt that I had to win a slam at 15. … I felt like I had a time limit on when I should win [a Slam], and if I won one after a certain age, then it wouldn’t be an achievement.”
Over the past four years, with the help of her team, Gauff has learned to accept the pressure, use the doubters’ comments as motivation, and to just try her best.
Gauff first envisioned winning a Grand Slam when she was young. A video shown during the U.S. Open this year showed a bubbly 8-year-old Gauff cheering from the crowd as part of an Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day event. She went on to compete in the junior tournament, making the final as a 13-year-old — the youngest girls’ singles finalist in US Open history.
“As you can see in the video, I love being on Ashe, whether it was in the crowd or on the court,” Gauff happily quipped.
Two years later, at age 15, she qualified for her first Grand Slam main draw. On the storied grass courts of the All England Lawn Club, Gauff made it to the fourth round of Wimbledon. She became so popular with fans that her third round match was moved to Centre Court.
After Wimbledon, Gauff felt as if she had to win a Slam by age 17. Her idol, Serena Williams, to whom she is often compared, won the first of her 23 Grand Slam titles when she was 17.
But tennis is a mental game as well as physical, and coming to grips with expectations and pressure is as much a part of winning as drilling 1,000 groundstrokes within the lines.
As the seasons ticked by, Gauff continued to develop as a player. In 2021, she became the youngest French Open quarterfinalist in 15 years. She again reached the fourth round of Wimbledon that year, and she was named to the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team competing at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 before she came down with COVID-19 and had to withdraw.
But she had yet to make a Grand Slam final, and the doubters were vocal, which let self-doubt creep in.
“I remember I lost one tournament when I was 17, and there was a stat like, ‘She’s not going to win a slam before Serena’s age,’” said Gauff.
In 2022, she lost in the first round of the Australian Open. But a few months later, she made it all the way to her first Grand Slam final, this one at Roland Garros (French Open). She lost to world No. 1 Iga Świątek, 6-1, 6-3, but found motivation in the loss.
“I don’t know if they caught it on camera, but I watched Iga lift up that trophy,” Gauff said. “I [told myself], ‘I’m not going to take my eyes off her because I want to feel what that felt like for her.’”
But Gauff was not yet off tennis’ mental roller coaster. This year at the French Open, she felt pressure to back up the previous year’s run to the final — and to finally win a Grand Slam Final. This time, she lost in the semifinal to Świątek. Later, she realized that she wanted it too much.
And then Wimbledon happened. Gauff lost in Wimbledon’s first round to fellow American Sofia Kenin, the 2020 Australian Open winner.
“It was a tough, tough loss because I thought I was playing good tennis,” Gauff admitted. And she felt like people were saying, “Oh, she’s hit her peak, she’s done.”
Again, Gauff pulled herself back up, reminding herself that she just had to do her best. She won her first WTA500 singles title at the Washington Open in early August, then the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati in late August. But a WTA500 is not a Grand Slam, so these two wins did not instill a deep sense of belief.
Surprisingly, Gauff used Instagram to motivate her for the US Open in September. Despite her fun, easy-going demeanor, Gauff describes herself as a stubborn, argumentative person. As she scrolled through the comments on her Instagram, she internalized the naysayers.
“Until like 10 minutes before [the final], I was reading comments of people saying I wasn’t going to win, and that just put the fire in me,” she said.
In the city of dreams — New York — Gauff beat Aryna Sabalenka in a dramatic three-set match. Her main emotion after the win was happiness, with just a smidge of relief.
An athlete who seems mature beyond her 19 years — graciously thanking those around her, even Billie Jean King for working to equalize gender pay in tennis — Gauff credits her family for keeping her grounded, but also for keeping self-doubt at bay.
Her grandfather likes to say, “never say die,” and Gauff told herself not to give up after the first set loss to Sabalenka at the US Open. She realized she “had come too far to do that.”
Her dad has always told her what she imagines in her head can become reality. And perhaps most importantly, her mom has reminded her that tennis is what she does, not who she is.
“In the past, I would label myself as a tennis player, and I felt like if I didn’t do good in tennis, it meant I wasn’t a good person,” Gauff admitted. “It took a lot of growth to realize the opposite. Regardless, if I come home with a trophy or not, I’m still a human being, and I still do a lot of good in this world outside of the court. Having my parents always remind me that they love me regardless of how I do helped me [win the US Open final].”
Asked what she would tell her younger self, if she could sit down with the cute smiling 8-year-old in that video, Gauff would say, “don’t lose the dream, don’t let the doubters diminish it, and keep having fun.”
“I wish I could give this trophy to my past self,” Gauff added, “so she can be like all those tears are for this moment.”