At 16-years-old, Coco Gauff has already proven herself under pressure. The American phenom has already captured her first WTA title in Linz last fall as well as two runs to the Round of 16 at the Slams, tallying wins over Venus Williams and Naomi Osaka en route.
When the spotlight gets brighter, the audience larger, and the stages bigger, Gauff somehow stands taller, and that preternatural talent served her well during the five-month season shutdown due to COVID-19. In the wake of George Floyd's death in May, Gauff took to social media to be a young voice for the Black Lives Matter movement in America. A video of her giving an impromptu speech at a peaceful protest in Delray Beach, Florida quickly went viral.
"I think I learned a lot about myself over this break," Gauff told reporters ahead of the Top Seed Open in Lexington, where she is set to play her first tournament of the tour's restart this week.
"When I went to protest in the peaceful protest, I wasn't initially supposed to do a speech. They asked me like maybe two minutes before to do so.
"I would say why I felt calm is because of my grandmother. She's taught me a lot over the years. My grandmother was the first to integrate Seacrest High School in Florida. I learned a lot about her stories over the years, so I felt like that kind of prepared me for that moment.
"I also felt responsible since I do have a big platform, that it would be wrong of me to stay silent when this is obviously an issue going on. So I felt the need to use my platform to just spread awareness about the topic and educate people about it."
"I definitely think George Floyd, at least for the world, opened a lot of people's eyes. But I feel like this topic has been close to me ever since I was a kid, just because my parents have always talked to me about it. And I think that I was able to finally be able to put it into words because obviously talking about issues like this, you have to be very educated on the topic to make sure you don't say the wrong words.
"I felt like that was when I was ready to actually speak out about it because I actually knew a lot about it."
When she wasn't training, Gauff continued to spend her time educating herself on social justice issues and using her platform - whether on social media or signing petitions and emailing lawmakers - to demand change and justice. Privately, she also engaged in tough conversations with her friends about the racial divide in America.
"I think that the biggest thing that I wanted was it started a conversation and once you have a conversation going, you can learn from each other's experiences," Gauff said. "One player, [Andrea] Petkovic, she tweeted, that she's a European player. She doesn't really know much about the topic, which she was commending me and Naomi [Osaka] and Frances [Tiafoe] for doing what we're doing. It really raised her attention on it.
As a white European tennis player, it is not my place to hold big speeches. However, I feel like it is my duty to pledge allegiance and refer you to a young, fearless generation of tennis players represented by the likes of @naomiosaka @CocoGauff and @FTiafoe. I am with you.— Andrea Petkovic (@andreapetkovic) June 4, 2020
"For me, that made me realize that as long as we're starting a conversation, change can happen. I think I saw this is actually reaching players who might not experience this on a daily basis and that's what we want.
"For her to tweet that, I definitely appreciate her tweeting that."
Gauff may be better equipped than most women on the tour for dealing with the extended stoppage. Gauff limited her tournament play as a junior and the WTA’s age-eligibility rules limit the number of tour events she can play until she turns 18-years-old.
“To be honest, even though it was my longest break at home in general, we look at how spread out my tournaments are even back to juniors, I've always taken like two to three months [off]. So I think to be honest it didn't feel that much different.”
"For me, obviously, I miss competing and I miss playing, but I think it was a good little break for me because I was able to train," Gauff said.
"I consider myself still in the development stage. So having those months off to work on certain stuff definitely helps. Plus, I got to be home and be with my brothers and my family and that's probably the longest I've been home in a long time.
"But I'm excited to get back competing. I definitely miss being on the court."
Now... let’s continue this, shall we? pic.twitter.com/Mfn12VX0OK— Coco Gauff (@CocoGauff) August 2, 2020
In Lexington, No.53 Gauff is set to play a qualifier in her first-round match and could face No.2 seed Aryna Sabalenka in the second round. She is also in doubles with Caty McNally.
The last time we saw Gauff on court she had taken eventual champion Sofia Kenin to three sets in the Round of 16 at the Australian Open.
"I think my goal for the rest of the year is to have fun competing again," Gauff said. "I really enjoy competing because I think when I'm not so worried about results or ranking, I think that's when I play my best tennis.
"So really, this whole week and the whole training block has just been to continue to improve and when it's time to get the chance to play, just have fun on the court, and we'll see next week when the tournament starts how this goes."