The rising tennis star took part in the first annual Baha Mar Cup for Hurricane Dorian relief

By Mackenzie Schmidt
November 15, 2019 08:51 PM
Credit: Courtesy Baha Mar

At just 15, American tennis star Coco Gauff has already experienced highs and lows that would rattle players twice her age — and she’s handled them all like a pro.

She defeated her idol, Venus Williams, at Wimbledon, then suffered a loss on the sports’ biggest stage at the U.S. Open, triggering an emotional moment fans won’t soon forget. This fall, she took home her first WTA title in Austria, before heading to the Bahamas to take part in a charity exhibition that will help rebuild the islands that were devastated by Hurricane Dorian in August.

Gauff faced off with some of the sport’s legends, including Americans Andy Roddick and James Blake and Bahamian Mark Knowles, at the the first annual Baha Mar Cup, which raised over $100,000 for relief efforts. But first, she was looking forward to rallying with a different set of players: sixty kids from the Nassau community.

Credit: Courtesy Baha Mar

Andy Roddick, Arantxa Sanchez Vacario, James Blake, Baha Mar President Graeme Davis, Mark Knowles, Coco Gauff, Tommy Haas, Bob Bryan

“We’re going to be playing with some of the local kids here, so I’m excited,” she told PEOPLE before the event. Having receptive students was a change of pace for the Florida-based athlete, who has two younger brothers she says still don’t take her tennis tips. “I think no matter how many matches I win, they won’t listen to me,” she jokes.

Despite some rain and high winds on the day of the Cup — a reminder, Knowles noted, of the kind of weather the islands of the Abacos and Grand Bahama endured a few months prior — the players did their best, with Gauff showing up many of the veterans to the delight of her young fans.

Blasting past people’s expectations is something she’s quickly become familiar with.

“You know, you see the people saying, ‘Oh, she’s all hype’ and ‘she hasn’t won anything,’ and all that, and I guess I kind of like proved everyone wrong,” Gauff says, a few weeks out from taking home her first WTA title in Linz, Austria.

Credit: Courtesy Baha Mar

Before that, she’d had a string of close encounters.

After her star turn at Wimbledon (her first Grand Slam singles tournament), where she ultimately lost out on the title, she stole the spotlight again at the U.S. Open. There, she fell short, being defeated by 2018 champ Naomi Osaka. But the pair inspired one of the tournament’s most heart-string-tugging moments, when Osaka, 22, invited Gauff to share in her victory interview.

“Normally after [I lose a] match, I go in the locker room and I cry,” Gauff admits with a laugh. Osaka told her of the American crowd, “‘Well all these people are here for you.’ At the time I was like, no. But I guess, looking back, she was right, and I just felt bad that I let some people down. That was just a good moment for everyone to see, that you can really be playing against each other and want to win, but after it’s all over, it’s like nothing happened. That’s just how competing is.”

Credit: Courtesy Baha Mar

As she’s currently in her off season, Gauff says she was happy to have some down time and enjoy the Bahamas with her parents, Corey and Candi. The island of New Providence, where Baha Mar is located, was spared by the worst of Dorian and the massive 2-and-a-half-year-old property, comprised of three hotels — the Grand Hyatt, the Rosewood and the SLS — bounced back quickly.

There, she faced a fear far more universal than the bright lights of Arthur Ashe stadium: swimming with sharks.

We got to feed sea turtles, and then have some fun with stingrays and then also touch sharks and get in the water with them, which was nerve wracking for me,” she says of the resort’s Sanctuary experience. “My mom was freaking out more. She was about to run and I was like, you better not. I’m pretty sure they can swim faster than you.”

Stand-up paddle boarding and tubing were more everyone’s speed. “We’re pretty adventurous,” she says. The hotel also offers eleven pools, 40 restaurants and bars, and of course a racquet club, with nine tennis courts, including the only grass court in the Caribbean.

Soon, it will be back to work for Gauff, who will start preparing for her next Slam, the Australian Open in January. “I’m excited. Hopefully I make it to the finals,” she says. “I like proving people wrong.”

The Baha Mar Cup will air in the U.S. on The Tennis Channel in late November.