The family of Wimbledon’s wunderkind Coco Gauff tell DAVID JONES the secret of success

She was so much quicker, cooler and skilful than her labouring 30-year-old Slovak opponent that it was rather like watching a precocious fifth-former embarrassing her games mistress at school

She was so much quicker, cooler and skilful than her labouring 30-year-old Slovak opponent that it was rather like watching a precocious fifth-former embarrassing her games mistress at school

She was so much quicker, cooler and skilful than her labouring 30-year-old Slovak opponent that it was rather like watching a precocious fifth-former embarrassing her games mistress at school

The scene is a raucous sports bar on Florida‘s Atlantic coast, where men in baseball hats clink bottles of ice-cold beer while their families feast on catfish nuggets and enormous buckets of chicken wings, all served with mountains of fries.

It could hardly be further removed from the hallowed grass courts of the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club, but this afternoon the giant overhead TV screens aren’t showing major league baseball games, as they would on any other July day.

The thrills are coming live from London, SW19. 

For the Paradise Sports Bar and Lounge, in Delray Beach, is owned by Corey Gauff — father of 15-year-old wunderkind Coco who has taken Wimbledon by storm.

As this gifted and self-assured schoolgirl — the tenth-youngest singles player ever to compete at Wimbledon — sauntered imperiously onto Court 1 on Wednesday evening (mid-afternoon on America’s East Coast), about 20 of her relatives were among the whooping, hollering crowd; and the Mail was the only newspaper invited to join them.

Clustered around the woman Coco calls ‘G-Ma’ — her 74-year-old maternal grandmother, Yvonne Odom — the clan included brothers Cody, 11, and Cameron, six (who is still a tad young to sit through a tennis match and went outside to doodle on the pavement with a piece of chalk), as well as various cousins, uncles and aunts.

As this gifted and self-assured schoolgirl — the tenth-youngest singles player ever to compete at Wimbledon — sauntered imperiously onto Court 1 on Wednesday evening (mid-afternoon on America's East Coast), about 20 of her relatives were among the whooping, hollering crowd; and the Mail was the only newspaper invited to join them

As this gifted and self-assured schoolgirl — the tenth-youngest singles player ever to compete at Wimbledon — sauntered imperiously onto Court 1 on Wednesday evening (mid-afternoon on America's East Coast), about 20 of her relatives were among the whooping, hollering crowd; and the Mail was the only newspaper invited to join them

As this gifted and self-assured schoolgirl — the tenth-youngest singles player ever to compete at Wimbledon — sauntered imperiously onto Court 1 on Wednesday evening (mid-afternoon on America’s East Coast), about 20 of her relatives were among the whooping, hollering crowd; and the Mail was the only newspaper invited to join them

And if they seemed a touch nervy on learning that the match had been postponed until 8pm, so that it would have to be played under a roof and floodlights — the first time Coco, who only turned professional in May, had experienced such conditions — they needn’t have fretted.

She was so much quicker, cooler and skilful than her labouring 30-year-old Slovak opponent that it was rather like watching a precocious fifth-former embarrassing her games mistress at school.

‘Come on baby! You can do it!’ yelled one of Coco’s youngest aunts, Lashonda Wright, 47, as she thumped another winner. As the match wore on, and victory became inevitable, a football-style chant of ‘Coco, Coco!’ rang out.

Clustered around the woman Coco calls 'G-Ma' — her 74-year-old maternal grandmother, Yvonne Odom, above, — the clan included brothers Cody, 11, and Cameron, six (who is still a tad young to sit through a tennis match and went outside to doodle on the pavement with a piece of chalk), as well as various cousins, uncles and aunts

Clustered around the woman Coco calls 'G-Ma' — her 74-year-old maternal grandmother, Yvonne Odom, above, — the clan included brothers Cody, 11, and Cameron, six (who is still a tad young to sit through a tennis match and went outside to doodle on the pavement with a piece of chalk), as well as various cousins, uncles and aunts

Clustered around the woman Coco calls ‘G-Ma’ — her 74-year-old maternal grandmother, Yvonne Odom, above, — the clan included brothers Cody, 11, and Cameron, six (who is still a tad young to sit through a tennis match and went outside to doodle on the pavement with a piece of chalk), as well as various cousins, uncles and aunts

For G-Ma, however, the excitement was almost too much. Watching the granddaughter she has mentored from infancy celebrate her second Wimbledon victory with a double-fist pump — a gesture fast becoming her trademark — poor Mrs Odom began hyperventilating and collapsed into a chair. 

Happily, after she was fanned and took a few deep breaths, she recovered. 

‘I get emotional and that’s just the result of a joy that you can’t explain,’ said the retired maths teacher, with a shrug and a smile.

‘Coco has worked so hard for this. Nobody gave her anything. I just hope every young person can see that if they have a dream, then they can go for it. I’ll be talking to her tonight, and I’ll just be saying ‘good job’ like I always do. 

‘Now go out and have fun’. She was wonderful today. I love the way she held her composure; if she can keep doing that, you’d better watch out!’

Quite. And with all due respect to Mrs Odom, far better judges of tennis ability also now believe the remarkable Coco has every chance of becoming the youngest player to reach a Wimbledon final.

With her 117mph serve, gazelle-like speed and feline grace, the great John McEnroe, himself an eight-time Wimbledon champion, rates her favourite in her next match, due to be played today against Slovenia’s Polona Hercog, 28, even though the older woman has won five WTA singles titles.

‘You’ve just gotta laugh,’ he remarked after her win on Wednesday. ‘There is no fear whatsoever.’ 

Yet old Superbrat, who knows a thing or two about adolescent behavioural issues, added a word of caution. 

During the coming weeks, he warned, Coco will be bombarded with endorsement and sponsorship offers, and the hoopla will bring untold pressure. 

‘Hopefully her parents will handle it as well,’ he remarked.

'Come on baby! You can do it!' yelled one of Coco's youngest aunts, Lashonda Wright, 47, as she thumped another winner. As the match wore on, and victory became inevitable, a football-style chant of 'Coco, Coco!' rang out

'Come on baby! You can do it!' yelled one of Coco's youngest aunts, Lashonda Wright, 47, as she thumped another winner. As the match wore on, and victory became inevitable, a football-style chant of 'Coco, Coco!' rang out

‘Come on baby! You can do it!’ yelled one of Coco’s youngest aunts, Lashonda Wright, 47, as she thumped another winner. As the match wore on, and victory became inevitable, a football-style chant of ‘Coco, Coco!’ rang out

Remembering the calamities that befell other child tennis stars such as Jennifer Capriati — who descended into drug addiction and eating disorders after her professional debut in 1998 at a ludicrously young 13 years and 11 months — his concern is understandable.

From all we have seen in Florida this week, however, Coco will not fall by the wayside. 

She is being widely compared to the Williams sisters, and not only because she shares with them the undeniable rarity of being a black girl excelling in what is still, largely, a sport dominated by white players.

Coco was so inspired by Serena that she still hangs her picture on her bedroom wall, while her playing style is uncannily like that of Venus in her prime. 

However, having first interviewed the Williamses when they were just emerging on the circuit in their mid-teens, I believe these comparisons are overblown.

When I met Venus and Serena, their upbringing had been so cloistered, so myopically focused on tennis, that they were barely able hold a conversation.

Posed with the simplest question — such as whether they had boyfriends — they giggled coyly.

Of course, they have since become articulate sporting ambassadors. But their upbringing was undoubtedly unnatural — some might argue dysfunctional; added to which their family was fractured, with their now-divorced parents and self-styled coaches, Richard Williams and Oracene Price, perpetually in conflict.

In Coco’s case, matters are altogether different. As we have seen this week her father, former college basketball star Corey, 47, and mother Candi, 48, an ex-gymnast and athlete, are very much a unit, and her family have made it a priority to ensure Coco’s formative years are as normal as possible. 

From all we have seen in Florida this week, however, Coco will not fall by the wayside. She is being widely compared to the Williams sisters, and not only because she shares with them the undeniable rarity of being a black girl excelling in what is still, largely, a sport dominated by white players

From all we have seen in Florida this week, however, Coco will not fall by the wayside. She is being widely compared to the Williams sisters, and not only because she shares with them the undeniable rarity of being a black girl excelling in what is still, largely, a sport dominated by white players

From all we have seen in Florida this week, however, Coco will not fall by the wayside. She is being widely compared to the Williams sisters, and not only because she shares with them the undeniable rarity of being a black girl excelling in what is still, largely, a sport dominated by white players

And although Coco began playing tennis on the same public courts once used by the Williams girls, in Delray Beach, her middle-class upbringing was light years removed from that of Venus and Serena, whose journey began in the crime-blighted Los Angeles ghetto of Compton.

After Wednesday’s match, Mrs Odom invited us into the substantial, single-storey house where Coco spent much of her childhood, and where she and her husband Eddie now help to organise their granddaughter’s increasingly hectic schedule.

‘That child was born a fighter,’ said G-Ma, remembering how Coco came into the world on March 13, 2004. 

‘Candi was just about to have her baby shower when she suddenly had a fright and leapt up. She went into labour the next day and Coco was born three weeks early.

‘She made a dramatic entrance. From the start she used to keep her fists balled — it was like she came into the world fighting.

‘That face, that same face you see now on court, she was like that as a kid.’ (As one BBC commentator remarked, Coco is so impassive on court she would make a great poker player.)

Coco’s natural athleticism became evident when, as a toddler, she suddenly leapt from her buggy and ran several laps of a race track chasing a cousin.

But it was at St John Missionary Baptist Church, where she sang in the choir and still attends with her family, that her grandmother first noticed her extraordinary ability to concentrate.

‘If you’ve ever experienced a black church service, you would know we don’t do anything quick. The songs are long, the sermon is long. We are going to keep you a good two hours,’ she says. ‘I noticed that as a kid, she always paid attention… didn’t play around. She’d take notes in a little notepad, and I told my husband, ‘There’s something special about her — something unique’. She was so attentive.’

The church, she adds, has played such a pivotal part in Coco’s life that last Sunday, on the eve of her victory over Venus, her mother texted the pastor to ask him to say a prayer for her.

'That child was born a fighter,' said G-Ma, remembering how Coco came into the world on March 13, 2004. Coco's natural athleticism became evident when, as a toddler, she suddenly leapt from her buggy and ran several laps of a race track chasing a cousin

'That child was born a fighter,' said G-Ma, remembering how Coco came into the world on March 13, 2004. Coco's natural athleticism became evident when, as a toddler, she suddenly leapt from her buggy and ran several laps of a race track chasing a cousin

‘That child was born a fighter,’ said G-Ma, remembering how Coco came into the world on March 13, 2004. Coco’s natural athleticism became evident when, as a toddler, she suddenly leapt from her buggy and ran several laps of a race track chasing a cousin

He did as she asked and, as the congregation joined him, Mrs Odom called Coco and her parents in London on Facetime.

At that moment, 3,000 miles away, her granddaughter was on the practice courts but Coco interrupted her session to watch and listen to the service.

‘To me it was like a miracle,’ says Mrs Odom. ‘Someone at the back (of church) started hollering, ‘Coco, Coco’ and the whole congregation joined in. Coco was telling everybody ‘thank you’, then she went back to practice.’ It was originally thought Coco’s birthplace was Atlanta, Georgia. 

In fact, she was born in Boca Raton, Florida, and her family moved north to Atlanta because her father found work as a pharmaceutical executive there.

After she started to show promise, aged seven, they returned to Florida, which is renowned for its tennis academies.

She went to an ordinary local school before her teacher mother began home-schooling her to allow more time for training. She is now enrolled on an internet school system and enjoys English, but not maths.

In her family, learning to conduct herself properly, on and off the court, holds equal importance to schooling, and her grandmother says she has sometimes felt appalled by the behaviour of Coco’s rivals on the junior tennis circuit. 

‘Early on I saw what were — to me — privileged white kids, and some of them were very rude to their parents,’ she says, her mood sombre.

‘They were throwing racquets, yelling back at their parents . . . and I told Coco, ‘Girl, don’t you ever do that. I don’t care how good a tennis player you are, you’re going to respect your elders.’ That is something we have instilled in her.

‘Another thing I heard in those early days was her call herself ‘stupid’ because she had made some kind of unforced error.

‘I told her, ‘Look, you don’t ever, in your life, call yourself stupid’. So we tried to intervene in those kind of things. Because she used to cry when she made a mistake.’

She pauses, then admits: ‘When they (her parents and management team) made the decision to go professional, I was very concerned. I thought, ‘She’s playing with the wolves’.’

The conversation turns to Coco’s social life, and the inevitable question — does she have a boyfriend? She doesn’t, her grandmother laughs, but no one would try to stop her from dating and ‘we know it’s coming’.

In the meantime, Coco has a crush on the rapper and actor Jaden Smith, 20-year-old son of Hollywood star Will Smith.

Coco also has a healthy appetite and is particularly fond of her grandfather’s cube-steak and macaroni cheese — which might be one reason why her height ‘exploded’ by four inches last summer, to 5ft 11in, and to a size 11 in trainers.

While this spurt has proved useful in tennis terms, it has caused her immense frustration when pursuing her other great passion: buying shoes with ‘killer’ high heels and designer clothes.

‘Just before Wimbledon, she was due to attend a gala (at a tennis academy in Monaco) and she ordered this fancy dress online,’ says her grandmother.

‘I said, ‘Coco, you’ll need to try that dress on,’ but she said, ‘G-Ma, it’s going to fit’. She thinks she knows everything.

‘Well, her back had got much bigger, because she’s getting built, so Candi couldn’t even zip it up for her, and Coco was crying. In the end, she didn’t go to the gala anyway because she got to the Wimbledon qualifiers.’

This poignant story serves as a reminder that, though she seems mature far beyond her years with a racquet in her hand, away from the spotlight Coco is going through the same tribulations as any other 15-year-old girl.

We must trust that she has since found a gown that fits.

For in eight days, if her stunning form continues, Coco might be the belle of the Wimbledon winners’ ball.

Additional reporting: Greg Woodfield in Florida

Link hienalouca.com

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