Hours after winning her first United States Open tennis championship, in September, Coco Gauff took her Tiffany trophy for a nighttime swirl around the tournament grounds.
Dressed in the summer’s hot color — pink — she lip-synced to the No. 1 single from Nicki Minaj and Ice Spice:
“I’m bad like the Barbie/I’m a doll, but I still want to party.”
At 19, Gauff met the cultural moment and made it her own.
“That’s what great content creators do. They capture the essence of moments,” said Kirby Porter, the founder of New Game Labs, a marketing firm that helps start-ups work with athletes. “First, she embodied that in winning. And then that video? I literally downloaded it, and I was like, ‘Yes, Mood!’ That’s exactly how I feel.”
Born into a new generation of athlete creators, Gauff became the M.C. for Gen Z with her unscripted authenticity at this U.S. Open. She not only raised her own profile, but lifted women’s tennis in need of a new celebrity after the retirement of Serena Williams.
“To me, it’s been in a lull for a couple of years now, without having any personality,” said Zina Garrison, who at Wimbledon in 1990 became the first Black woman to play a major final since Althea Gibson.
“It’s like the Women’s Tennis Association didn’t have an identity, and she’s bringing back the identity,” Garrison said of Gauff.
A relentless defender on the court and a self-assured voice off it, Gauff, who was not available to comment, proved that she is primed to make a long-term impact well beyond sports. Inspired by her grandmother Yvonne Lee Odom, who integrated her Florida high school in 1961, Gauff has used her platform to promote social justice, including Black Lives Matter, gender equity and climate change activism.
Now ranked No. 3 in the world, Gauff enters this week’s year-end WTA Finals in Cancun, Mexico, with a more immediate question: Has she recovered from a shoulder injury from a tournament in Beijing this month?
After winning 16 straight matches this summer and fall, Gauff lost in the semifinals of the China Open to No. 2-ranked Iga Swiatek. Gauff then withdrew from another tournament in China.
Her agent, Alessandro Barel Di Sant Albano of Team8, said in an interview that Gauff had a “minor muscle injury” and that she would be ready for Cancun. “She’s going with the mind-set of, ‘I am going to win this tournament,’ ” he said.
Team8 has also been busy fielding calls for her.
“There’s been at least 100 brands that have reached out,” Barel Di Sant Albano said, adding that Gauff already had seven partnerships, including New Balance, which created her signature shoe.
“We’ve always taken the approach of ‘fewer, bigger, better’ and the idea that it doesn’t come and go away overnight,” he said. “If you focus on what happens on the court, it will become much more off the court down the line.”
Gauff turned pro in 2018 at age 14. She had her breakthrough the following year at Wimbledon, upsetting Venus Williams in the first round and running to the fourth round in a stunning debut. She also won her first W.T.A. tournament in 2019.
Gauff marked that four-year anniversary by posting a video on X, formerly Twitter, of her celebrating the moment with the quote: “I want to hug her.”
For Gen Z, the social media scrapbook has the receipts. See: Gauff as a bubbly 8-year-old dancing in the stands at the 2012 U.S. Open to “Call Me Maybe.” Nearly 750,000 people followed her Instagram account in the last three months, a rate of growth that ranks first among female tennis players, according to MVP Index, a valuation and data measurement company that focuses on sponsorships in sports and entertainment.
On TikTok, ESPN’s replay of Gauff protesting what she said were her opponent’s delay tactics to the chair umpire in her opening match at the Open went viral, drawing 2.7 million likes.
In 2022, viewership on ESPN reached record levels during Serena Williams’s farewell in a third-round loss. How would the Open fill that void?
According to ESPN, Gauff’s three-set championship victory against Aryna Sabalenka was ESPN’s most-seen women’s tennis final. It peaked at 3.5 million viewers, according to MVP Index.
That far surpassed the peak of the men’s final — 2.7 million — when Novak Djokovic trounced Daniil Medvedev. In a summer of surging interest in women’s sports, including in soccer’s World Cup and the W.N.B.A., Gauff’s championship averaged 2.8 million viewers compared with 2.3 million for the men, MVP Index calculated.
She tried to FaceTime her brother Codey after she won. During the trophy presentation, Gauff thanked her parents, poking fun at her father for crying, acknowledged Venus and Serena Williams for inspiring her and thanked the trailblazer Billie Jean King, whom the Open was celebrating for making equal prize money possible for women 50 years ago. Gauff won $3 million.
But when Gauff delivered her most memorable message, “the whole tone of her voice changed,” said Garrison, who was doing radio commentary. She went from lighthearted to “I have something to say,” Garrison recalled.
That’s when Gauff addressed her critics who thought she would not fulfill her potential. They thought they were throwing water on her fire, but were actually throwing gasoline: “I’m really burning so bright right now,” she said.
“We could not have scripted the 2023 U.S. Open any better,” said Stacey Allaster, the tournament director, who credited Gauff for understanding her platform. “And then she leans in and she inspires hundreds and thousands of girls to believe in themselves. Let’s just drop the mic.”
Joe Favorito, a sports marketing consultant and a former executive with the W.T.A. and U.S. Tennis Association, wondered why he hadn’t seen more of Gauff in advertisements since the Open.
“You have to take advantage of things while the spotlight is on you,” he said. “Those are legacy opportunities.”
But Garrison disagreed. “I don’t think you have to push it with Coco,” she said. “She’s not going anywhere. Coco’s here to stay.”