I’m a tennis casual at best. The one time I took a stab at playing, it took less than an hour for me to lose every ball I bought from Target to the woods behind the court. I pretty much only watch when Venus, Serena, Sloane Stephens or Coco Gauff are playing in a major, and yes, that’s because I care about the sport almost exclusively because, and when, Black players have a shot at winning something significant.
That paragraph prefaces that I’m not about to offer intelligent post-match analysis about Gauff’s straight-sets loss to Iga Swiatek in the French Open championship this morning. Swiatek, a 21-year-old from Poland was ranked first in the world going into the tournament. In technical terms, she destroyed the 18-year-old Gauff in her first Grand Slam final appearance. That sentence, like Gauff’s performance, won’t make any of her fans happy.
But I pray that casual tennis watchers—people like me—aren’t tempted to hold Gauff to unrealistic expectations based on the success of her tennis forebears. It’s an easy inclination to succumb to, especially give the Williamses’ trajectory. Serena Williams was 17, a year younger than Gauff, when she won her first Grand Slam, the 1999 U.S. Open. Venus was a month past her 20th birthday for her first Wimbledon win in 2020. Together they rewrote their sport’s record books over the past two decades, leaving innumerable reasons for fans to be proud of two Black girls from Compton who forever changed a sport with precious little representation of people who looked like them.
Now winding down their careers, the Williamses wore a path through elite territory in tennis, global popular culture and business that many of us want Gauff to trod next. Gauff becoming the heir to their throne would validate a popular—and necessary ethos—that successive generations of Black excellence attain ever-greater accomplishments. And Gauff may yet do that; she’s already using her visibility to call for an end to gun violence and getting props from forever FLOTUS Michelle Obama.
When she wins her first Grand Slam, or whether her career, still in its infancy, rivals that of names like Williams or King, don’t matter. Gauff said after Saturday’s match that she’ll wake up with her head high on Sunday. She has every right to.