Coco Gauff’s Roots in Delray Beach
Nov 08, 2023
Corey Gauff speaks emphatically when he says “if not for Bill Murray, there would be no Coco Gauff.”
Her father is not referring to the actor and comedian. This Bill Murray is a tennis coach who has been running programs and teaching on the two hard courts at Pompey Park in Delray Beach since 1972.
“These are hallowed grounds,” Murray said when I arrived at the park just east of I-95 and north of Atlantic Avenue on a Friday afternoon this fall. “Back during segregation these courts were built primarily for the neighborhood.”
Above: Bill Murray at Pompey Park in Delray Beach. Photo: Jim Martz.
Richard Williams would take Venus and Serena there to train when the girls were around 12 and 13 years old. The late tennis icon Arthur Ashe started a Schools Program there in the 1980s.
And Corey Gauff, who grew up a few blocks away in the neighborhood that’s known as Poinciana Heights, played several traditional team sports at Pompey Park and was encouraged by Murray to give tennis a try.
“Growing up here in Delray Beach all the kids would come here for recreation,” Murray said. “Corey was an allaround athlete, played basketball, baseball, football. He was a quarterback. And he had run track, but we didn’t have a track field here. He would have been a great track star if he got into it, but his wife, Candi (who grew up in Delray Beach), was an All-American in track at Florida State.”
Pompey Park is a city-owned, 175-acre park named after long-time Delray Beach resident C. Spencer Pompey. It’s 10 blocks west of the famed Delray Beach Tennis Center, which has 20 courts and is home of the ATP Tour’s Delray Beach Open and international pickleball events, and has been host to Davis Cup and the Billie Jean King Cup competition.
“Tennis was a non-traditional sport, it wasn’t on the city’s list to design a program,” Murray noted in regard to Pompey Park. “Eddie Odom, the baseball coach, and I took it upon ourselves to make baseball, tennis and swimming as a part of the programs I wanted kids to get into sports other than the traditional sports.
Above: Coco Gauff display at Pompey Park. Photo: Jim Martz.
“Corey came here at age 9 or 10 and played tennis tournaments. Every year he would get better and better, and he would play sanctioned tournaments all over Florida. His mom would take him.”
Murray noted that before there was a rule that a player can’t go to the other side of the net to dispute a call or they’re disqualified. “Corey would go on the other side when a ball that was called out clearly hit in and the kid knew it hit in. Corey was bigger than most of the kids and was tall. He’d ball his fist up and say that’s not the mark, show me the mark And the kid would say it was good, and Corey would go back to the other side.”
One time Murray was at an area recreation meeting “and they said there’s a guy named Corey down in Delray , he is intimidating the hell out of these kids. Someone said Bill Murray knows him, and I said I don’t think I know him.”
Another time Murray was with Corey and other Pompey Park kids in a tournament at the posh Boca Raton Hotel and Club “and he was winning. He had a big serve and big volley. He’d come to the net and hit a big volley, and he had a big swag when he walked back to the baseline. And the girls were crazy about him.
“One time he served and volleyed and the other guy got mad and threw his racquet into the net and it somehow caught Corey right in the back. And Corey looked back and the only thing the kid knew was to run, and Corey caught him. They suspended the other guy.”
Murray said Corey “was a great player. When he was about 17, colleges were looking at him for tennis. He beat Vince Spadea in the 12s, Vince wasn’t that good then, kind of heavy set, but his parents had some money and they put him in tournaments.”
Spadea, who lived a few miles away in Boca Raton, went on to become one of the top junior players in the world and was ranked as high as 18th in 2005 on the ATP Tour.
“Vince and Corey were friends and Vince would go to the hood and say I’m with Corey,” Murray said.
Corey Gauff went on to play basketball at Georgia State and began a career as a health care executive. He married Candi in 2001.
Above: Coco Gauff with her father Corey Gauff. Photo: Maureen Connolly Brinker Tennis Foundation (mcbtennis.org).
Cori Dionne (Coco) was born March 13, 2004, in Delray Beach and they have two sons, Cody, now 16, and Cameron, 10, who grew up playing baseball at Pompey Park.
This past July, Corey Gauff was inducted into the American Tennis Association’s Hall of Fame during the ATA annual meeting in Orlando. Murray attended the event, and as we were leaving Corey said to me and a few others, “If not for Bill Murray, there would be no Coco Gauff.”
During my visit to Pompey Park, Murray said, “What he means by that, I would get him and everybody into tennis. And years later I told him you be the coach of Coco just like Mr. Williams was. I told him what to look for and how to go about it.”
He added, “Coco would practice here on a regular basis with her dad. I hit a couple of balls with her. I told Corey to be the coach. He said he hadn’t been around tennis in a long time. I said it doesn’t matter, Mr. Williams is not that good , you don’t need to be a genius to raise a champion.. The genius is maybe 10 percent and the rest is the kid. Some coaches try to say do this and do as I say. The kid has to develop his own individuality.”
Murray said when Coco was 7 he got her into the ATA tournament and she won. Then she went on to win the 14s and 16s and the “Little Mo”. This summer at age 19 she won the U.S. Open, and she’s ranked No. 1 in doubles with Jessica Pegula.
Above: Coco Gauff celebrates next to her US Open trophy in New York this summer. Photo: New Balance.
Murray recalled that Richard Williams “had a mobile home from Rick Macci, and he got them a place at Laver’s Resort. Someone told Richard about me and he came here in his golf cart. They came here every day for awhile when they were at Macci’s, early in the morning with a basket of 600 balls.”
In the book “Serena Williams” by Merlisa Lawrence Corbett there’s a section called “Rooted in South Florida”. It notes that in Delray Beach, the girls split time between Macci’s academy and Pompey Park. Although not occupied by gangs like in Compton, California, where Venus and Serena lived their early years, the Pompey Park courts had cracks and potholes. Macci said Richard had the girls play there to keep them grounded and remind them of their roots in Compton.
As Murray says, it’s hallowed grounds.
Written by Florida Tennis Founder and Editor Jim Martz. This article also appears in the November/December 2023 issue of Florida Tennis Magazine. Be sure to subscribe for expanded coverage, exclusive interviews, and in-depth tennis news. Top Photo of Coco Gauff courtesy of New Balance.