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Joe Hoover, S.J.September 12, 2023
Coco Gauff reacts during a match against Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus during the women's singles final of the U.S. Open tennis championships on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

I hope this will be brief, because that is kind of the point.

After mounting a ferocious comeback and defeating Aryna Sabalenka in three sets in the women’s finals of the U.S. Open on Sunday, 19-year-old Coco Gauff knelt in front of her courtside chair, folded her hands, closed her eyes and prayed. I cannot exactly explain why, but watching it felt like a relief. It drew me in. It took about 11 seconds, but I could have watched her pray for much longer.

In the trophy ceremony afterward, Ms. Gauff told former American tennis star Mary Jo Fernández that when she prays, it is not to win matches: “I just ask that, you know, I get the strength to give it my all and what happens happens. I’m so blessed in this life.”

The whole thing made me think that (obviously) God is important in this young woman’s life; and that maybe I could make God even more central to my own.

The whole thing made me think that (obviously) God is important in this young woman’s life; and that maybe I could make God even more central to my own.

And really, that could be it for an America article about Ms. Gauff praying. She knelt, she spoke, God was witnessed to: wonderful.

The temptation, however, for a writer at a Christian publication, or for any kind of Christian preacher or evangelist (or just any kind of Christian, period), is to make something more of this scene. We can see this famous, successful young person praying and talking about God (which she regularly does on the tour) and then immediately flash onto this moment as a storyline, a narrative, a lesson. Something to tell our recalcitrant, unchurched kids, or point out to the secular agnostics on and off the hardcourts: See–God matters in this young superstar’s life,take note and take stock.

It makes me think of a line by the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti: “The day you teach the child the name of the bird, the child will never see that bird again.”

Coco Gauff is a stunning tennis player. Her prayer too is a marvel, not for anything having to do with its unique cultural instantiation, but the fact that, simply, we get to be around it.

The child sees a small feathered creature with a long narrow beak and shining green feathers darting around a narrow tube filled with sugar water. She sees the wings beat and the bird pop back and forth, to and from the feeder. The child notices the thing, sees the thing, laughs at the bird, marvels at the creature, maybe wonders: why sugar water? The child has an experience of the thing.

Then you tell the child that creature is called a hummingbird. The next time that child sees the small feathered hovering creature (or so the theory goes) it thinks, ah, hummingbird, and stops noticing the hummingbird itself; the child relates more to the name than what the name is doing. She loses the experience of the thing for the title of the thing.

We might see a spectacular athlete praying in public and instantly cast her as a sort of athletic Christian soldier, a “counternarrative” to a godless culture or shallow world. We may see 11 seconds of courtside devotion as a thing called “The Iconoclastic Praying Christian Athlete”—and miss the simple, moving experience of the athlete, who is Christian, who is praying.

Coco Gauff is a stunning tennis player, hustling east to west on the court chasing down balls no earthly creature should ever be able to chase down. She is a marvel to witness. Her prayer too is a marvel, not for anything having to do with its unique cultural instantiation, or social framing, but the fact that, simply, we get to be around it. When you watch an athlete you love compete, you become that athlete. You become Ms. Gauff, hitting blistering forehands down the line, crumpling at her double faults, screaming with delight when she wins; and, just maybe, praying when she prays. Maybe the first job, the only real job of a Christian when seeing someone pray like that, humbly, fervently, in public, is to witness it. Be moved by it. Join her.

[In an earlier version, this essay mistakenly identified the bird as a sparrow instead of a hummingbird.]

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