After winning her first Grand Slam singles title over Aryna Sabalenka on Sunday, 19-year-old Coco Gauff became the youngest American tennis player to win a U.S. open since Serena Williams in 1999.
In a post-match press conference, Gauff credited Williams – who retired last year – and her sister, Venus Williams, as her role models.
“They’re the reason why I have this trophy today, to be honest,” Gauff said. “They have allowed me to believe in this dream growing up.”
Gauff, who started playing tennis at the age of six, recalled watching the sport on television and not seeing many players who looked like her – “It was just them that I can remember.”
The Williams sisters, now widely regarded as tennis legends, often faced critiques rooted in sexism and racism, particularly early in their careers. Much was directed toward their athletic builds. In 2009, Fox Sports columnist Jason Whitlock described Serena Williams’ physique as “thick, muscled blubber,” and in 2014, then-president of the Russian Tennis Federation Shamil Tarpischev mockingly referred to the Williams sisters as “brothers.”
Tennis associations also appeared to scrutinize Black players’ behavior and clothing more closely than white players’. For example, French Tennis Federation President Bernard Giudicelli banned form-fitting bodysuits after Serena Williams wore a specially-designed Nike catsuit to the Grand Slam in 2018, saying, “One must respect the game and place.” However, social media users were quick to point out that former U.S. tennis player Anne White – a thin, white woman – wore a bodysuit to a Grand Slam in 1985. In addition, Serena Williams has in the past recalled being drug tested far more frequently than other players.
Race, sex and class bias has also bled into the economics of tennis. In 2006, Venus Williams advocated for all women tennis players when she spoke before the Grand Slam committee and requested that women receive equal prize money to men at Wimbledon.
Then, there are sponsorship deals. In 2013, Serena Williams reportedly made $10 million less in endorsements than Maria Sharapova, despite being a higher-ranked player. When asked about the disparity, Williams told The New York Times she keeps a positive mindset “so the next Black person can be number one on that list.”
That next Black person could be Coco Gauff, who often speaks out against racial injustice on social media. She recently told Teen Vogue she’s inspired by her grandmother, who in 1961 was the first Black student to integrate a Florida high school.
“She’s the sole, or one of the main, reasons why I use my platform the way that I do and why I feel so comfortable speaking out,” Gauff said.
Thanks to Black women who came before her, perhaps Gauff can be spared some of the discrimination that’s historically been intertwined with the predominantly white sport. She told the press it’s “an honor” to be ranked alongside the Williams sisters, and went on to list players like Naomi Osaka, Althea Gibson and Sloane Stephens as other sources of inspiration.
“They paved the way for me to be here,” she said.