For Nicole Gibbs, a trying year—and career—is a marathon, not a sprint

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NEW YORK—Among the wave of suspended matches from Tuesday’s steady stream of rain at the US Open, the first-rounder between Nicole Gibbs and Veronica Cepede Royg may have had the hardest conclusion to handicap. Under cloudy skies, Gibbs cruised to a 6-0 lead, but when rain began to fall—distracting the 24-year-old American to the point of concern, because of a leg injury she’s rehabbed this year—Cepede Royg answered with a 6-1 set.

“I was joking with my team afterwards: ‘Old Nicole never would have tried to stop play,’” Gibbs said a day later. “But having been through the kind of injuries that I’ve had recently, I just have a new appreciation for how important it is to stay healthy.”

Roger Smith, Gibbs’ loyal coach, tried to keep his player composed in the midst of such uncertainty. “You’re going to be alright,” Smith told Gibbs on Tuesday, or at least as best he could given the restrictions on communication. When she did hear him, Gibbs wasn’t having it, offering a “Yeah, but…” and nervously looking at the soggy court.

“The court was getting quite slick, and I felt a little tentative with my movement,” said Gibbs. “Letting some external factors get to me, so I think it was good to hit the reset button.”

Gibbs held to begin the third set on Tuesday, but the eventual postponement was the best thing that could have happened to her. She returned to Court 7 under a flawless azure sky, with an equally attractive game. She was more assured of her step, more forceful with her groundstrokes—Gibbs answered Cepede Royg’s pace with depth—and more responsive to her studious coach.

Dutifully recording the outcome of each point in his notebook, Smith watched his player immediately break serve for a 2-0 lead, hold for a 3-0 lead and earn a break point that would have given her a 4-0 lead. When Gibbs stoned a makeable volley, it had to have been painful for Smith to jot the error down.

“[My coach has never wavered in his faith and belief in what he thinks I can do,” said Gibbs. “He believes that I have the potential to play Top 10 tennis. That’s where we want to go. He’s never let any single result, or string of results, deter him from seeing that in me.”

Handed a reprieve, Cepede Royg held, then reached 15-40 on Gibbs’ serve—the match seemed ripe for another sharp turn. But Gibbs effectively ended her opponent’s chances by running off four straight points, the final two with unreturned serves.

“Every ball, baby!” Smith shouted in support. Not long after, Team Gibbs was looking forward to their next challenge after a 6-0, 1-6, 6-1 victory.

The victory was an equally satisfying one for coach and player. After reaching the third round of this year’s Australian Open (where she eventual lost to Serena Williams), Gibbs went six major- and minor-league tournaments without recording a victory. Her first main-draw win since Melbourne came in Stanford, site of the summer WTA hard-court tournament, and also the name of the university she attended.

Now, after four victories at Flushing Meadows—three in qualifying, one main draw—the 127th-ranked Gibbs will face a massive step-up in competition: top seed Karolina Pliskova.

Regardless of her result against “the ace queen,” as Gibbs dubbed last year’s fast-serving finalist, the US Open has already served a turning point for Gibbs—thanks in large point from a turning point from Mother Nature.

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” said a confident Gibbs. “The game’s changing where older and older when they make their break now.”


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