There are many ways to end a tennis match with a flourish: You might do it with a line-clipping ace, a fearsome forehand, or even a tweener. On Tuesday in Rome, Coco Gauff, who ran track in high school, did it in her own, unique way: With an improvised version of the long jump. When her opponent Zheng Qinwen’s final shot careened over the baseline, Gauff had to make a flying leap to avoid touching the ball. After she came back to earth—smiling and seemingly unhurt—Gauff had one of her best wins of 2024, 7-6 (4), 6-1 to move into the semifinals at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia.

This was a first-time matchup of mirror-image young stars. Gauff is 20, Zheng 21. Gauff is ranked No. 3, Zheng No. 7. Gauff won her first major title at the US Open last year; Zheng made her first major final at the Australian Open this year. Both love their two-handed backhands, and both are expected to win more big titles, and help carry the WTA, and their respective nation’s tennis fortunes, for the next decade or more.

Read more: Coco Gauff confirms changing technique amid serving woes in Rome

But Gauff and Zheng came into this match with something else in common: They hadn’t played all that well for the last four months. Since the Australian Open, Gauff had reached just one semifinal, and had struggled with her old weaknesses, her forehand and her serve. Zheng had been even deeper in the doldrums, going just 5-6 since Melbourne. In Rome, each has talked about trying to find her way back to her best form, and each made progress toward that goal.

For Zheng, motivation has been a problem.

“After Australia, there was a couple stages for me when I lose the [hunger],” she said. “In practice, I was not so focused.”

WATCH: Coco Gauff wins first-time meeting with Zheng Qinwen in Rome quarterfinals | HIGHLIGHTS


That lack of desire led to a “fight with my team,” and then an attitude adjustment.

“After a couple losses, I start to say, ‘Well, maybe time to change my mentality again.’”

According to Zheng, her win over Naomi Osaka this week felt like a return to her old, enthusiastic self.

“I jump on the court, I say to myself that I want to show my good tennis again and to really compete with her,” she said after straight-set win.

For Gauff, the struggle has been less emotional, and more technical. She’s tinkering with the mechanics and the pace on her serve, and trying to fight her natural defensive instincts and get on the front foot more, especially with her return.

“I feel confidence in the way I work,” Gauff says. “I spent a lot of time just working on different parts of my game. I feel like it’s in the right direction and I’m working hard.”

So how did the first meeting between Gauff and Zheng go? For a set, both brought something close to their best. Through six games, each had three solid holds and neither had faced a break point. Both were playing with controlled aggression, and trading blows with their two-handers. Gauff raised her level higher to break for 5-3, before Zheng matched her with a brilliant drop shot-forehand volley combination to break back.


Gauff had to make a flying leap to avoid touching the ball... When she came back to earth—smiling and seemingly unhurt—she had one of her best wins of 2024.

Gauff had to make a flying leap to avoid touching the ball... When she came back to earth—smiling and seemingly unhurt—she had one of her best wins of 2024.

The difference came in the tiebreaker. When Zheng forced an error from Gauff to go up 3-2, she punctuated the point with a rare fist-pump. But instead of gaining confidence and keeping the momentum, she overhit on the next point. From there, Gauff took over, smacking a down-the-line backhand winner and a service winner to go up 6-3. Zheng never recovered, and Gauff ran out the set, and the match, 7-6 (4), 6-1.

Gauff faced just one break point on the day, while Zheng made just 40 percent of her first serves. Gauff forced more errors from Zheng’s racquet, which may have been the most important stat of the match. Still, when things got tight late in the first set, so did Gauff’s forehand. But both women will be happy with their performances in Rome, and happy that they came in time for Roland Garros.

For now, though, Gauff faces a bigger challenge on Thursday: world No. 1 Iga Swiatek in the semifinals. Over the last few months, Swiatek, Aryna Sabalenka, and Elena Rybakina have re-created their tri-valry from early 2023. Meanwhile, Gauff, despite her No. 3 ranking, has been left out of the fun, and out of the important titles. Now she has a chance to get back in.