Teen tennis prodigy Coco Gauff learns to relax in the spotlight

Teen tennis prodigy Coco Gauff learns to relax in the spotlight

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MELBOURNE, Australia — American teenage sensation Cori “Coco” Gauff is giving tennis fans at her Australian Open debut a sense of déjà vu.

On Monday, she defeated one of the most decorated players in women’s tennis and her own role model: Venus Williams, a seven-time Grand Slam winner.

It was practically a replay of the first round Wimbledon match that propelled the prodigy from Florida to stardom just seven months ago, when she beat Williams against the odds.

With her performance here in Melbourne, Gauff has made history again: She is now the first American woman in 30 years to advance to the third round of her first three major tournaments.

But Gauff, 15, says she doesn’t submit to statistics and expectations, rather her own goals of doing her best each time.

This time, she tells NBC News, she walked onto the court a different player.

“I think I’m more relaxed when I go out on the court,” she said.

And there’s something else, Gauff says. This time, she is more confident.

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“I respect everyone’s game and I respect my opponent. But at the end of the day, if I’m going to go against them, I can’t say ‘Oh, I’m going to lose this match.’”

“I believe I can beat anyone,” says Gauff, who calls Delray Beach, Florida, home.

She admits it’s hard to believe only seven months have passed since she shocked the tennis world at Wimbledon, advancing to the fourth round before ultimately falling to Romanian Simona Halep, who went on to defeat Serena Williams in the final.

Gauff has fared well in her Australian Open debut. After her first round victory over Williams, she mounted a tremendous comeback in round two, defeating Sorana Cirstea.

She will close the week in a round three rematch against defending champion, Japan’s Naomi Osaka, on Friday. The two first met during the U.S. Open, where Osaka’s victory over Gauff led to a touching post-match moment between the two.

Gauff says she’s learned a lot since then.

“I came to the realization that I need to play my own game, not worry about what people think of me,” she says.

“My mindset just is: I’m going to fight. If I lose, the world is not going to end, I’m going to have another match in maybe a week or so,” Gauff added.

Venus Williams, right, congratulates compatriot Cori Gauff on winning their first round singles match at the Australian Open on Monday.Dita Alangkara / AP

With a maturity well beyond her years, it’s easy forget that Gauff is just 15. But the telltale reminders are there: Homework takes a back seat to TikTok.

And a few months away from driving age, among her most prized possessions is her learner’s permit.

“I would show you, but I don’t have it on me,” she tells a room full of reporters during her post-match press conference. “My mom has it because I almost lost it here.”

And she’s got big plans for the real thing.

“When I’m 16 and I get my license, I’m going to be going to Chick-fil-A and everywhere without my parents.”

But regular teenage desires do not obscure just how exceptional Gauff is.

Gauff’s mission is a lofty one, and she states it matter-of-factly: to be the greatest. And to win as many Grand Slams as possible. And maybe have fun along the way.

“If I inspire one person, that means more than any match for me,” she says. “I know it’s cheesy, but honestly it’s true because without the Williams sisters, I wouldn’t even be here right now.”

“I hope somebody can say that about me in the future.”

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