“You got to do the total concentration breathing that Tanjiro does,” Coco Gauff said after her 7-5, 6-3 win over Aryna Sabalenka in Rome on Thursday. “I probably wasn’t doing it like him, but it definitely helped on those match points.”

“Shout out to Demon Slayer for helping me.”

Do you feel lost, or maybe a little old, reading those words? You’re not alone. With a new generation come new inspirations, and Gauff got hers from the world of anime today. Who knew an animated character could teach you how to breathe?

Of course, Gauff did more than just take in air today. She dismantled one of the hottest players on the women’s tour at the moment, and she did it in comprehensive fashion.

Gauff won with her speed. Against most players, Sabalenka can finish points with a couple of shots; today, she needed to hit three or four. Gauff won with her tactics. Rather than try to slug with Sabalenka from the forehand side, which would have been a losing proposition, the American rolled her forehand high and deep, and jumped on any short reply with her more-powerful backhand. Most important of all, Gauff won by getting her serve in. Plagued by double faults in the past, she didn’t commit any today.

“A 10 out of 10,” Gauff said when she was asked to rate her performance. “I think I played pretty well the whole match. She’s not an easy opponent. I mean, sometimes you’re always on defense, so sometimes you just have to scramble a little bit.”

“I think today I played smart and well.”

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Gauff relishes flawless performance with Barty matchup looming

Gauff relishes flawless performance with Barty matchup looming

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Gauff is still just 17, but the fairytale period of her career is behind her. She began where few people begin: at the top. As a 15-year-old, she enjoyed standing ovations from full houses on major show courts at the Grand Slams, just for winning her first-round matches. Now the long slog back up the mountain—as a real contender this time, not a Cinderella story—has begun.

But Gauff doesn’t seem to be let down by the smaller crowds and the quieter applause that greets her when she plays, and she doesn’t seem daunted by the tough losses and blown leads that come with earning an honest living on tour. All in all, she’s had a good season so far. She reached the semis in Adelaide and the quarters in Dubai and Charleston, and now she’s in the quarters in Rome, with wins over Sabalenka and Maria Sakkari. Coco’s not rocketing to the top, like the prodigies of old, but she’s also not proving to be a flash in the pan, either.

“I definitely think I would be happy where I’m at now,” Gauff said today when she was asked if her 15-year-old self would be pleased with her progress so far. “Obviously I want to keep going and keep going further. I’m not going to be satisfied until I reach my goal."

“During that time people were saying, ‘It’s a fluke, it will never happen again.’ I think I’ve proved all those people wrong. I’m going to continue to prove them wrong.”

Cutting down the double faults was job No. 1, and she has done that. She has made a tweak to the way she holds the racquet, and smoothed out the rhythm on her motion. More impressive, perhaps, is how she has learned to play within her limits. Gauff doesn’t have a killer forehand; it’s her two-handed backhand that is her putaway shot. So rather than flail at her forehand today, she turned it into a set-up shot; her high, heavy balls gave Sabalenka trouble, and opened up opportunities for her backhand.

Gauff also says that she has learned not to put the weight of the world on her shoulders, or expect to do prodigy-like things every time she walks on court.

“I think for at least now we’ve been working on just like laying back a little bit more,” she said. “I think for at least me, in my match, I approached the matches—I approach them seriously, but I was approaching them too seriously. Now I really am trying to enjoy the pressure, enjoy the moment.”

Sabalenka is a good match-up for Gauff, because her offense allows the teen to play defense, which she specializes in. Next up will be a trickier, and even higher-ranked, opponent in Ash Barty. Unlike Sabalenka, the Aussie will give the American a variety of spins and speeds to deal with.

“It will be great to see, like, where my level is,” Gauff said. “I mean, she’s the No. 1 player in the world. I have no pressure on me. If that ends up being my opponent, I’m just going to go out there and see what I can do and try my best.”

What would Tanjiro tell her to do in her first meeting with the world’s best? We’ll find out on Friday.

Gauff relishes flawless performance with Barty matchup looming

Gauff relishes flawless performance with Barty matchup looming