The 19-year-old athlete opens up to PEOPLE about managing pressure, meeting her tennis idols and her secret TikTok account
Coco Gauff still laughs at the idea that she’s a famous athlete.
“It’s still very shocking,” the 19-year-old tells PEOPLE. “I’m very shy.”
Even though she’s still a teenager, Gauff has spent the last half-decade adjusting to her celebrity — something that first began to sink in when she started meeting her own tennis heroes, like Roger Federer and Serena and Venus Williams, at professional tournaments when she was 15.
“I don’t know, I don't think I'll ever get used to it because they’re my idols,” she laughs. “It’s really weird.”
But nowadays, Gauff is often the tennis player others are anxious to meet. Though, the feeling sometimes goes both ways: “I remember I met these two girls recently and I gave them both hugs, and they both started to cry. But then I started to cry!” Gauff says.
Gauff, the No. 6-ranked player in the world, spoke with PEOPLE recently through her partnership with Barilla. It’s one of the handful of major brands the humble tennis star has become the face of in recent years, highlighting just how famous she’s really become — even if it doesn’t always feel that way for Gauff.
“I don't consider myself famous or anything,” she laughs. “I'm just a person who plays tennis and people like to watch that. But off the court, I'm completely normal and I don't get why people get hyped up about me. I really don’t, truly.”
The hype around the Florida native began in 2019 when she first burst onto the tennis scene at 15, taking the sport by storm. She won her first WTA tournament that October, defeating 2017 French Open winner Jelena Ostapenko in the finals.
That summer she teamed with Venus Williams as a doubles partner during the Roland Garros tournament in France. In singles play, she advanced to the fourth round at Wimbledon and later the third at the US Open, indicators of what was to come.
In the years since, Gauff has captured five WTA tournament championships. Three of those wins have come this season, including this month’s Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati where she took down World No. 1 Iga Swiatek in the semifinals.
The thought that Gauff, one of the biggest names in tennis, still hasn’t captured a Grand Slam title might be head-scratching for some, although she appears poised as ever heading into the US Open next week. Capturing that elusive Grand Slam tournament win is a goal at the top of Gauff’s list, she says. But she’s trying not to put so much pressure on herself that she becomes distracted.
“For me, the most important thing is to try to minimize the moment because the moment can seem so big,” she says, adding that recently she’s tried to approach matches as “carefree” as she is in practice in order to stay loose.
“It was probably easier when I first started playing,” Gauff says. “I think I just didn't really understand the whole thing that was going on, especially in 2019 when I had that run. I didn’t understand how big of a deal it was. And I think now I do have that understanding, so sometimes I make it almost too much of a deal when it's not. So, I do find myself trying to go back to that mindset that I had, but obviously I'm a different person then than now, so it's not that easy.”
Gauff has made efforts to keep herself grounded recently. The strategy has proven fruitful, too: She’s already racked up the most tournament wins (three) that she ever has in a single year.
On the court, Gauff began working with a new coach this summer, former pro Pere Riba. And off of it, she’s made time for the things she loves outside the lines, like spending time with her younger brothers Cameron and Codey, watching her favorite anime like Hunter x Hunter and Blue Exorcist and editing her own anime.
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The tennis star says she even started a secret TikTok account where she shares her artwork, to both better connect with fans and simultaneously take her mind off tennis. “Some of the people who follow me don't even know who I am,” she laughs. “They really just think I'm an editor who likes to edit anime and stuff.”
It’s a brief escape for a player who exudes as much humility as she does fierceness on the court with her tenacious serve, which she hopes to unleash at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens, New York next week as she begins chasing down her first major tournament win.
“It would mean a lot to me,” Gauff says. “For me, the goal is to win. That’s the ultimate goal. Obviously, there's minor ones along the way, and I think the biggest one is trying to make sure I control the matches on my side of the court, and I think that will help me get to that ultimate goal.”
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