• Sports
  • tennis

Coco Gauff Wants to Be the Greatest. A French Open Title at 18 Would Help

4 minute read

After Coco Gauff announced her arrival three summers ago, when at 15 she went on a thrilling run to the fourth round of the 2019 Wimbledon, she took a few moments to reflect on how her life suddenly changed. During an interview with TIME in her hometown Delray Beach, Fla., about a month after she beat her idol, Venus Williams, in London, Gauff mentioned how she left for appointments a few minutes earlier than usual, since someone would inevitably ask her for a selfie.

Gauff also revealed how she was still, well, a kid. She continued to play hide and go seek with her younger brothers. She had never been on a date. After a training session, her father, Corey, started pricing flights to the Australian Open, a little nervous about the financial commitment involved in a trip down under. Her mother Candi, who homeschooled her daughter, sat nearby: at its infancy, Team Coco was still, quite literally, a mom and pop operation,

Despite the whirlwind Gauff—who will play in her first Grand Slam final on Saturday morning, against world No 1 Iga Swiatek for the French Open title—declined to dampen expectations. Her ultimate goal? “To be,” Gauff said at the time, “the greatest.”

One can’t help but feel that Gauff, who turned 18 in March and recently posed with her high school diploma in front of the Eiffel Tower, might just be on her way. She’s the youngest Grand Slam finalist since Maria Sharapova, who won the 2004 Wimbledon at 17. Gauff, who also reached the doubles final at Roland Garros, became the youngest American to play in a major championship title match since 17-year-old Serena Williams did so at the 1999 U.S. Open. Gauff hasn’t dropped a set at Roland Garros this year. She had little trouble with Italy’s Martina Trevisan, an unseeded player, in Thursday’s semifinal. Gauff complained about Trevsian’s loud grunts to the chair umpire early in the match, but the noise never unnerved her; she won 6-3, 6-1.

After the match, Gauff wrote on a camera, “Peace. End gun violence.” She had gotten wind that another mass shooting had taken place in the U.S., this time in Tulsa, Okla. on Wednesday. “For me, it’s kind of close to home,” Gauff said at her press conference afterward. “I had some friends that were a part of the Parkland shooting. I remember watching that whole experience pretty much firsthand, seeing and having friends go through that whole experience. Luckily they were able to make it out of it. I just think it’s crazy, I think I was maybe 14 or 13 when that happened, and still nothing has changed.”

At a young age, Gauff is still determined to use her platform: she also spoke, for example, at a 2020 Black Lives Matter rally. If she’s a thorn in the side of the “stick to sports” crowd, so be it.

Since that 2019 Wimbledon, Gauff’s rise wasn’t as meteoric as some may have expected. She’s won a pair of singles titles and worked her way up the rankings: she’s currently 23rd in the world. She knocked Naomi Osaka out of the third round of the 2020 Australian Open. But she’s suffered some tough losses, like a first-round ouster at the 2020 U.S. Open later that pandemic year. Fellow teen Emma Raducanu won a major, at last year’s U.S. Open, against Leylah Fernandez, now 19. Other young stars began to overshadow her.

No more. Even if Gauff loses to Swiatek on Saturday—a result that’s quite likely, given her experience (Swiatek won Roland Garros in 2020) and current 34-match winning streak—her run Roland Garros run marks a moment of excitement for American tennis. She’s seemed to shake her issues with second serves, allowing her speed and power to shine. French Open title or not, the Coco Show is just getting started.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com