The Emotional Intelligence of Coco Gauff

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Photo by Getty

Bill Simons

Paris 

Is Coco Gauff the most appealing young player in the WTA? Let the debate begin.

The Floridian glides with ease on Roland Garros’ clay carpet. Her ponytail dangles long and free. She doesn’t hesitate to vent – we see her frustration. She doesn’t hide, she lets you in. She’s a fighter whose favorite NBA player is Draymond Green. Plus, she has an uncanny awareness of her life and her role. She’ll talk about all she’s learned about World War I and World War II and how morning walks in Paris clear her mind. Some say her speed, her athleticism, her backhand, her smarts, and her heart are her strengths. Broadcaster Eleanor Preston said her prime asset was her emotional intelligence. Time and again her insights impress. She’s a problem-solver extraordinaire. 

It’s not just that she handled the glare of the spotlight when, at age 15, she beat Venus Williams. At the height of the George Floyd crisis she gave a poignant speech passionately calling for racial justice. More recently she said that schools should be havens where students should be able to talk about a wide range of matters including gender issues.

The stats showed that Coco was the youngest player in the top 100. For years everyone seemed to be saying, “She’s the next Serena.” Chris Evert noted, “It’s not a question of if Coco will win a Slam, it’s a question of when.”

Being a kid superstar teen is fabulous. Your shoe ads are on TV all the time. When you graduate from high school, Michelle Obama gives you a nice little call. Your bank account is hefty – Coco’s net worth is north of $4 million. But sometimes fame and fortune are fraught with problems. Just ask Naomi Osaka, who’s struggled mightily with her wellness issues. Still, Gauff seems to pull off her fame with astonishing ease. Her parents always told her all they care about is her character. They bristled when she once broke a racket. Her grandmother reminded her continually that there is so much more than tennis. They like it when she speaks her mind.

After she beat Sloane Stephens, Coco spontaneously gave the best post-match speech any teen has ever given. The 18-year old-spoke of the pressure she felt and put things in perspective. “Even last year I was too focused on other people’s expectations. I think you have to enjoy life. I know no matter how good or bad my career is, I think I’m a great person. So I think that’s a message for all the young players out here.

“Even in life, your results, your job or how much money you make doesn’t define you as a person. So just know that if you love yourself it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. Our society focuses too much on materialism and status. We all come into this world in the same way. And we leave in the same way.”

Afterwards she said, “I always try to tell young kids to dream big, you never know when your moment is going to come.”

Writer Richard Evans, who, like Gauff, lives in Delray Beach, FL, notes, “Coco is so calm, intelligent and focused. She’s bound for big things. I don’t know whether it is in writing or politics.”

Today she overcame double faults, tentative play and early breaks, and upgraded her game brilliantly as she finished strong and crushed Italy’s left-handed Martina Trevisan, 6-3, 6-1, to reach her first ever Slam final. After winning, she wrote “Peace. End Gun Violence” on a TV lens. She said she’s learned a lot from other athletes and recalled that she has friends who survived the Parkland shooting that killed 17 in 2018. And, to her, gun safety isn’t even politics. “This is just a [gun safety] message for people back home…Hopefully it gets into the heads of people who are in office…I have really been trying to educate myself…I’m a human being before I am a tennis player…My dad told me I could change the world with my racket,” she noted. 

In the final, Coco will be trying to end Iga Swiatek’s ascendance. The soaring Pole has been playing at a level above the field. The swift, powerful 21-year-old has won 34 straight matches. She beat Gauff at the 2021 Italian Open and at the Miami Open two months ago. Swiatek will be a prohibitive favorite to win her second French Open title Saturday. 

Gauff spoke glowingly about Iga: “She’s super nice…just as nice as you guys have seen her in press conferences.” But Gauff, who’ll play the doubles semis with Jessica Pegula, loves to study her losses and relishes beating those who’ve previously downed her. It’s not an impossible task. As Evans said, “She’s a very special young lady.”

INCREDIBLE IGA: To the surprise of virtually no one, Iga Swiatek continued her march to victory today. She beat Russian Daria Kasatkina for the fourth time this year. It was an almost ruthless 6-2, 6-1 win. The Pole has now won 34 straight matches. She’s won her last 12 matches against top 20 players while dropping just one set. She has a 92% winning percentage at Roland Garros, the third best ever here in Paris.  

TODAY’S KING OF ROLAND GARROS: The French Open has been all about the king of clay. But today there’s a new king in town. Billie Jean King was honored on the 50th anniversary of her first French Open. BTW: we heard through the grapevine that King is not happy with Tournament Director Amelie Mauresmo, who threw shade on women’s tennis in her choices for showtime matches and in her press conference.

NEWBIES ROCK: Last year, all four French Open woman semifinalists had never been there before. This year three of the four – Gauff, Kasatkina and Trevisan – were there for the first time.

COULD BE: Last year, Czech Barbora Krejcikova won both the French Open singles and doubles. Gauff could do it this year. 

TITLE TIME: Mountain View, CA native and UCLA product Ena Shibahara, a current Rancho Palos Verdes resident, captured her first career Grand Slam, winning the Roland Garros mixed doubles with Wesley Koolhof. The No. 2 seeds beat Ulrikke Eikeri and Joran Vliegen, 7-6 (5), 6-2.

STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN? Iga Swiatek came on court listening to Led Zeppelin and then admitted that she might be on a stairway to heaven.

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