Tennis star Coco Gauff becomes a Gen Z icon for pointing out her millennial opponent was bending the rules, with $3 million at stake: ‘How is this fair?’

“Coco Gauff, nothing easy about that match. Describe what it was like to play it,” an interviewer asked the tennis prodigy moments after her first-round victory at the U.S. Open. The 19-year-old paused for a beat before answering with a smirk, “Slow,” causing the crowd to erupt in cheers and applause. 

Gauff has gone viral on social media after confronting an umpire who turned a blind eye to her 35-year-old German opponent allegedly breaking the rules during their Monday match at the U.S. Open. Everyone from TikTokers to the Obamas are praising the young player for standing up for herself and for her maturity in handling the situation. Others are comparing her treatment to the experience of another tennis legend—23-time Grand Slam winner Serena Williams during a U.S. Open final in 2018.

Gauff stormed up to the chair umpire after she served and her opponent, Laura Siegemund, threw her hands up, claiming she wasn’t ready.

“She’s never ready when I’m serving. She went over the clock, like, four times. You gave her time violation once. How is this fair?” Gauff argued to the umpire in the third set of the match. 

Not only was her opponent unready for Gauff’s serves multiple times, but Siegemund repeatedly exceeded the 25 seconds players have to serve the ball and start play. The crowd noticed it too. In a press conference following the match, Gauff said she heard the crowd calling “time” and pointing to their wrists. 

The umpire replied that Gauff was serving too fast. Gauff defended herself, arguing that the ref was taking too long to call the point at the end of a game, cutting into her 25 seconds and making it appear as though she was serving abnormally fast. 

“I’m going a normal speed. Ask any ref here, I go a medium pace speed,” Gauff said, with the crowd cheering her on from the stands. “I don’t care what she’s doing on her serve, but my serve, she has to be ready.” 

An ESPN commentator complimented her, saying, “Well said,” and joked, “As if she didn’t have the crowd on her side enough,” a reference to the already partisan U.S. spectators. 

The aftermath

Later in the match, the umpire penalized Siegemund for two time violations: one for Siegemund’s serve that came after the allotted time and another for her failing to be ready to return on Gauff’s serve. Gauff ultimately won the match 3-6, 6-2, 6-4. 

In her press conference, Siegemund tearfully expressed her frustration with the crowd, who booed her during the match. “As a tennis player, you are a performer. You owe the people… At the end of the day, I go home and I can look at myself and I can say I did a great job, but did I get anything from the people for that?”

“They treated me like I was a cheater,” she added. “They treated me like I was a bad person.”

Some TikTok users speculate that Siegemund’s behavior was on purpose. As an older and more experienced player, Siegemund might have intentionally taken excessive time on serves and returns to frustrate and intimidate her younger opponent.

Gauff said she had no regrets on how she handled the situation, only that her team said she should’ve spoken up sooner. 

“I actually watched the video back when I was taking an ice bath,” Gauff said in the press conference. “Because sometimes you have these emotions, you forget what you said. And I would still say everything that I said in that moment again.”

The Obamas, who attended the match, were impressed too. The former president and his wife met with Gauff after, and praised her for her maturity and standing up for herself, she said.

$3 million at stake

Gauff isn’t new to the professional tennis world—she went pro in 2018 at the age of 14. When she was 15, she beat seven-time Grand Slam winner Venus Williams at Wimbledon. She defeated Williams again the following year, as well as former No. 1–ranked Naomi Osaka, at the 2020 Australian Open. That was the same tournament where Williams’ younger sister, Serena, unexpectedly lost in the first week. 

Gauff is currently ranked No. 6 in the world. Though Gauff and Serena Williams have never gone head-to-head in a professional match, comparisons have been drawn between the two for their unfair treatment by umpires. Williams had a notorious outburst at the 2018 U.S. Open, accusing the umpire, Carlos Ramos, of questioning her integrity and penalizing her more harshly than he would male players.

Amira Rose Davis—a professor at the University of Texas who researches race, gender, sports, and politics—referred to Gauff as Serena Williams’s “heir apparent” in an NPR interview, noting their prominence as Black athletes in a predominantly white sport and viral disputes with referees. 

But despite the comparisons, Gauff said that she’s not trying to follow in Serena Williams’s footsteps. She’s just trying to be “the best version of myself and be the best that I can be,” she told People on Thursday. 

Gauff is a favorite to win the U.S. Open, which has a $3 million prize for the men’s and women’s singles winners. But the prodigy was already making $1 million a year when she was 15, according to Forbes. Gauff has numerous sponsorships, including a sneaker line with New Balance and a collection with racket and tennis equipment brand Head. 

Gauff’s viral performance at the U.S. Open is launching the young player even further into the public eye. ESPN posted a video of the argument on TikTok, which has amassed over 19.9 million views and 2.4 million likes in three days. The comments are overwhelmingly in support of Gauff. 

One user commented, “Am I a tennis fan? No. But am I a Coco fan? Hell yeah baby.”

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