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Coco Gauff’s Tennis Haven Happens to Be Her Hometown

DELRAY BEACH, Fla. — You could stand on the street and hear the teenager’s squeaking sneakers as she sped up and stopped on Court No. 4.

Coco Gauff was back from Wimbledon and preparing for the United States Open, another high-wattage stop for the tennis virtuoso.

But unlike many of the players who have turned to South Florida’s training grounds to master slices and serves, she was practicing in the city where she was born 15 years ago. Her swift rise to international sensation was shaped in a tennis town — a public court complex with an 8,200-seat stadium sprawls behind City Hall — where her family has influenced the community for generations.

Gauff’s relatives have been civil rights stalwarts and stellar athletes, Little League organizers and ministers in this city of about 69,000 people. Now the spotlight extends far beyond Delray Beach, falling onto a 15-year-old girl who gained enough new fans that many simply call her “Coco.” They don’t need her surname — or her given name of Cori — to buzz about a star on the rise.

“Everything transpired so quickly with her,” said Deirdra Thomas, who has worked at Pompey Park, a longtime practice spot, since before Gauff was born. “Once she was rolling, that was it. We used to tease her parents: ‘Y’all save us tickets for Wimbledon. I want to go to the French Open, so y’all save me a seat in the box.’”

ImageCreditSaul Martinez for The New York Times

Gauff’s parents, who were college athletes, knew when their daughter was in elementary school that she had a preternatural feel for tennis. They were living in Atlanta for a stretch, and other pursuits — gymnastics, soccer, basketball and dance — fell away as Gauff’s family, which includes two younger brothers, increasingly focused on tennis.

“Tennis chose her,” Corey Gauff, her father and primary coach, said during a break between a hardcourt practice and a fitness session on a sweltering day in Florida.

Now, less than two months after Coco Gauff’s stirring Wimbledon run that included a victory over Venus Williams and an appearance in the round of 16, another grand stage looms in Queens, where she is scheduled to face 18-year-old Anastasia Potapova on Tuesday in the opening round of the U.S. Open. Again, the family-driven coaching formula — which the Gauffs largely refined over years of training on courts in the American South, including one at Pompey Park, where Serena and Venus Williams practiced as children — will be tested.

“I don’t see any fundamental weaknesses, but I’m sure her dad and her team have a lot of areas that they’re going to try to strengthen over time,” said Martin Blackman, the general manager of player development for the United States Tennis Association.

“The most promising component of where she’s at right now is the fact that her parents and her team have a long-term perspective, and that means she’s going to make good decisions on taking care of her body and not overtraining,” Blackman said.

Gauff’s skills, especially her intensity and focus, first surfaced so conspicuously and consistently in Atlanta. There, the 7-year-old girl who would fall asleep during drives to a tennis center south of downtown would begin a dynamic warm-up without coaxing. She talked about winning Grand Slam tournaments, scrutinized the Williams sisters, showed herself to be a quick study and would do handstands and cartwheels during breaks in practice.

“She was a natural competitor in that she just wanted to win and never ever, ever, ever quit,” said Jewel Peterson, who coached Gauff in Georgia. “One of the things that you’ll see with younger players is that if it’s not going the way they want it to go, they’ll quit fighting. That was never her.”

Most young players, Peterson said, took group lessons while music from animated movies played in the background. But Gauff could handle more sophisticated training, like refining the grip for her serve.

The Gauffs saw Florida, long an outpost for elite tennis, as the place where Coco’s early potential could best be cultivated. Beyond tennis, it offered family ties. Gauff’s maternal grandmother, Yvonne Odom, integrated a local high school in 1961, and a decade later, Gauff’s grandfather, Eddie Odom, founded a Little League that was open to black children (a baseball field in Pompey Park is named for him).

The family moved back to Delray Beach, a city about an hour’s drive north of Miami that had once briefly renamed itself “Tennis Beach.” The glimmer of a budding tennis star emerged quickly, as did the efforts to help Gauff.

Prentiss Mobley, who works at Pompey Park, recalled how when others would come to play, they knew which court Gauff preferred for practice: the one closest to the pool. Park workers would try to protect it for her.

“She dominated that one,” Mobley said.

She developed a reputation as a fearsome competitor with speed and agility, and a willingness to pursue daring strategies that remained as she matured. With time, her groundstrokes, especially her backhand, grew potent and efficient. She became more comfortable confronting powerful shots, and honed her willingness to play close to the net.

ImageCreditSaul Martinez for The New York Times

“We’d give her — when she was 11 — 17-, 18-, 22-year-olds,” said Cagri Saner, who worked alongside the coach Gerard Loglo to develop Gauff’s game. “She’d beat them.”

In her first appearance in the main draw of a junior Grand Slam tournament, the 2017 U.S. Open, she reached the finals. Last June, she won the girls’ final at the French Open. Her final junior tournament, the Orange Bowl, was a victory near Delray Beach.

After this summer’s star turn at Wimbledon, which ended with a loss to Simona Halep, the eventual champion, she lost to Zarina Diyas in the first round of the Citi Open in Washington. But she won the doubles crown there while teamed with 17-year-old Caty McNally, with whom she already earned a junior doubles title at the U.S. Open.

Last August, she was ranked No. 927. Going into Louis Armstrong Stadium, she is No. 140.

Still, coaches and family friends said Gauff shows flashes of a girl still in childhood.

Gauff, who is home-schooled, took a science test just ahead of a Wimbledon win. During breaks in practice on a recent morning in Florida, she would immediately grab her phone, the command post for her spunky social media presence. And when she was not playing at Pompey Park with her younger brothers, she would sometimes call Little League games and work the press box.

“She was a little volunteer at a very early age,” Thomas said, adding, “whatever we needed her to do.”

Tennis, though, has consistently been the center of her life. Loglo and others said that Corey Gauff was always the most important force in growing his daughter’s skills. A former basketball player at Georgia State, he became a student of tennis and analyzed the careers of young players who soared to stardom. He especially worried about injuries.

“He’s never really been caught up in short-term results,” Blackman said. “He’s the real driver behind that long-term perspective.”

And for Corey Gauff, his daughter’s training in the United States and elsewhere was part of a yearslong puzzle.

More recent workouts in Europe made Coco’s approach more well-rounded. And her earlier training in Atlanta, he said, was crucial as she advanced her game in Florida.

ImageCreditSaul Martinez for The New York Times

“Good tennis players are made everywhere,” he said.

Indeed, Delray Beach offered proximity to some of the country’s finest coaches, quick trips to competitions and, perhaps most crucially, he said, “the village” of relatives and friends.

And, seemingly these days, a city.

Corey Gauff’s sports bar in Delray Beach was a gathering place during Coco’s Wimbledon matches. There was a homecoming celebration at Pompey Park after the Gauffs returned from England. And Mobley said the few people around Delray Beach who had not much cared for tennis were taking a sudden interest.

“Now, they’re learning to count the points,” he said with a loud laugh. “People at the corner store will be like, ‘Coco won that thing! Coco won!’”

More Coverage of Coco GauffCoco Gauff Will Play in the U.S. Open as a Wild CardAug. 13, 2019Keeping Cori Gauff Healthy and SaneJuly 2, 2019Cori Gauff, 15, Seizes Her Moment, Upsetting Venus Williams at WimbledonJuly 1, 2019


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