Yvonne Odom with her granddaughter Coco Gauff, who holds her U.S. Open trophy during a visit home. BELOW RIGHT: Yvonne Odom, then Yvonne Lee, was the first Black student to attend Seacrest High (now Atlantic High), in 1961. Photos provided
By Brian Biggane
Arriving home after watching a grandson’s baseball game in Fort Lauderdale, Yvonne Odom was getting phone calls and texts to join friends and relatives at a watch party for her granddaughter.
Her granddaughter is Cori “Coco” Gauff, who was playing to win the women’s championship at the U.S. Open last month in New York.
Odom, who lives in Delray Beach, didn’t want to go. Knowing that Coco had already lost the first set, she wasn’t eager to set herself up for disappointment.
“I like to watch her matches when they’re over, when I know she’s won, because I get so nervous,” said Odom, 77. “My husband didn’t want to go because he doesn’t like crowds. But I’m getting these texts: ‘Where are you? Everybody’s waiting for you.’
“My niece offered to drive me, and I got a standing ovation when I walked in. Then I saw so many people I knew: people from the church, (daughter) Candi’s sorority sister, the vice mayor, the (city) commissioner. So, I sat down and of course Coco won the second set and I said, ‘Here it comes.’”
Gauff dominated the final set and defeated Aryna Sabalenka, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, to capture her first Grand Slam tennis title at age 19.
“When she hit that point I lost it,” Odom recalled of the winning shot. “My phone rang then, and it was Coco but I didn’t answer because I was almost on my knees. My niece answered and she didn’t recognize her voice so she hung up. But I was just out of it. I was so relieved, so happy, because I knew she worked so hard.”
Odom wears a shirt bearing letters of her granddaughter Coco Gauff’s first name. Odom is a retired teacher with 45 years in Palm Beach County public schools. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
Family ties in Delray
The Odom/Gauff family has achieved almost legendary status in Delray Beach. Yvonne’s father, Randolph Lee, brought the family south from Daytona Beach in the late 1950s when he was named pastor of St. John Missionary Baptist in Boynton Beach, where he served 42 years. Yvonne became the first Black student to integrate Seacrest (now Atlantic) High in 1961.
Yvonne and Eddie Odom’s daughter Candi was a track star at Atlantic who earned Athlete of the Year honors from The Palm Beach Post and a scholarship to Florida State University. Her husband, Corey Gauff, grew up across the street from Pompey Park and played basketball at Spanish River High and Georgia State University. Small wonder, then, that their daughter, Coco, is one of the best athletes on the women’s tennis tour.
Married in 2001, Corey and Candi moved to Atlanta after Coco was born on March 13, 2004, when Corey got a lucrative job in the health care industry. Candi was a schoolteacher.
Corey and Candi Gauff pose with their daughter, Coco Gauff, after her U.S. Open championship. Photo provided
“Coco was premature and I think I know why,” Odom said. “We were at my brother’s house the night before and a cat ran past and Candi jumped. The next day she called and said, ‘Mama, my water broke.’ I was still planning a shower for her and went ahead and had it anyway. I blew up a picture of Coco and hung it on the wall.”
Odom recalled going to pick up Coco from nursery school when she was 3 or 4 and the children had all been asked their favorite foods. “A lot of them said McDonald’s or French fries and Coco said broccoli. I asked Candi about it, and she said, ‘Well, I do feed my kids vegetables.’”
Coco started playing tennis at age 6 and showed so much promise that a year later the family decided to return to Delray Beach, where Coco could get better instruction. Both parents also quit their jobs — a decision that didn’t sit well with Yvonne — with the agreement Candi would home-school Coco.
“I didn’t like that because Candi had 19 years as a teacher,” said Odom, herself a retired teacher. “It wasn’t OK with me. I told my husband, ‘Oh no.’ But he said, ‘Vonnie, that’s not your child.’ So, I didn’t talk about it anymore.”
The family spent two years living with Yvonne and her husband, Eddie — who is better known by his nickname Red — while Coco’s game blossomed. At age 8 she won a national Little Mo tournament and at 10 it was decided she would move to France to work with Serena Williams’ longtime coach, Patrick Mouratoglou.
“She had a poster of Serena hanging in her room. When Venus and Serena moved here from Compton, they were students at Carver,” Yvonne Odom said of the middle school in Delray Beach. “They were in sixth and seventh grade, and (father) Richard used to come and pick them up early.”At age 13, Coco Gauff entered a 5K race and won the entire women’s division. Photo provided
Wimbledon splash at 15 ...
Meanwhile, Coco’s budding athletic prowess was becoming evident in other ways. At age 12 she showed promise in a youth basketball league, and at 13 she entered a 5K race and not only won her age group but the entire women’s division. It was about that time, with her tennis results becoming more and more impressive, Corey decided she would concentrate on that sport.
At age 10 years and 3 months Coco won the USTA National Clay Court 12-and-under championship — becoming its youngest winner ever — and at 14 she won the prestigious Orange Bowl junior tournament in Miami. The same year she won the French Open junior girls title on clay and became the No. 1-ranked junior in the world.
She also turned pro in 2018 and just over a year later was invited to play in the qualifying rounds on grass at Wimbledon. After winning three matches to reach the main draw, she learned her first opponent would be five-time champion Venus Williams.
“Oh my God,” Yvonne Odom said. “I was very skeptical she would beat Venus, but I remember this guy [family friend] Dwayne Randolph said, ‘We’re going to put Venus out to pasture.’”
Gauff won that match and three more at Wimbledon, exploding onto the international scene as a 15-year-old.
... and some difficult losses
Gauff’s next big splash came at the 2022 French Open, where she reached the final before losing to No. 1-ranked Iga Swiatek 6-1, 6-3.
“We boo-hoo cried because she finished second,” Odom said. “That’s a term we use. But when I saw her I said, ‘Listen, God just decided this wasn’t your time yet. Because sometimes you get things and you’re not ready for it. So, cry 30 seconds, that’s my rule. You cry 30 seconds and get back to work.
“You don’t know if that stuck, but as a teacher I learned you don’t speak ill of anybody. She called herself stupid one time. She lost a point and said to herself, ‘What’s the matter, are you stupid?’ When that match was over I told her, ‘As long as you live, don’t ever refer to yourself as stupid. Uh-uh. That’s not going to happen. Because you’re not.’”
After a disappointing run early this year that culminated with a first-round loss at Wimbledon, Gauff switched coaches, signing on with Spaniard Pere Riba and one-time American star Brad Gilbert. She promptly won two big hard-court events in the United States that put her among the favorites in the Open.
“I like what Brad said,” Odom said. “He said, ‘I’m not going to change her forehand; you don’t just go and change somebody’s forehand.’”
Eddie Odom, Yvonne’s husband and Coco’s grandfather, was a longtime baseball and football coach after whom the baseball field at Pompey Park is named.
“You should see Coco practice, and my husband says, ‘The team that works the hardest is supposed to win.’ He doesn’t say will, but should,” Yvonne Odom said.
An active grandmother
Upon winning the Open title, Coco grabbed the microphone from interviewer Mary Joe Fernandez and thanked everyone from her parents to the fans, including her grandparents.
Her composure and her willingness to address social issues has led some to promote her as a spokeswoman for her generation.
“To me it’s a natural gift,” Yvonne said. “I’m a product of a Baptist minister, so we’re used to talking, and we have oratory contests in the church, you do the Sunday speeches and all that.”
Odom was equally unflappable when she was pulled away from her friends at Carver High School and enrolled at Seacrest early in her sophomore year back in 1961.
“People ask me if it was difficult, but I didn’t see it that way,” she said. “I went to everything. I ran for political office; I won the primary but lost the general election. We went to the football games, the proms.”
Odom had opportunities to go to bigger colleges, but a lack of money led her to what was then Palm Beach Junior College, then Florida Atlantic University. She went on to get her master’s at Nova Southeastern and taught in the Palm Beach County school system for 45 years.
One day at Delray Elementary she learned the racism she had worked as a teenager to diminish if not erase was still alive and well.
“I was standing at the door to my room and this girl was dragging her momma down the hall to meet me,” she said. “When that lady looked at me her face turned red, and she had her kid removed from my class the next day. My administrator said, ‘Well, Yvonne, that’s her loss.’”
Odom remains active in the community and is working to resuscitate the former Hilltoppers Quarterback Club, which was formed back in the Seacrest days but was brought down by the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re teaming up with the Delray Historical Society to get 200 businessmen to pay $500 each to proportionately divide between Atlantic and Village Academy,” Odom said.
“I’ve already donated $10,000 as president of the Delray Beach CDC,” the Community Development Corporation. “We’ve got 21 members so far but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We can’t have these kids spending their own money just to play football.”
What’s next for Gauff
Gauff’s U.S. Open victory improved her world ranking from No. 6 to No. 3. She has not yet been celebrated by the city of Delray Beach but has been feted in gatherings involving friends and family. She has two younger brothers, Codey and Cameron.
Gauff returned to play early this month and won her first two matches in Beijing. She planned to play a couple of tournaments before the WTA Finals come along at the end of October in Cancun, Mexico, and then the Billie Jean King Cup in November in Spain.