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"I’ve just got to be myself": Coco Gauff breaks new ground in Paris
How did Gauff polish her game this spring, win 13 of 14 matches, and reach her first major quarterfinal at 17? By forgetting the pressure that comes with being a prodigy and having fun.
Published Jun 07, 2021
WATCH: Coco Gauff surges into her first Grand Slam quarterfinal in straight sets over Ons Jabeur.
Near the end of her 53-minute, 6-3, 6-1 demolition of Ons Jabeur on Monday, Coco Gauff was faced with a delicate decision. A shot hit by Jabeur had landed short and bounced straight up, leaving Gauff to figure out what to do with a ball that was right on top of the net—and about to start dropping fast. A tricky task for some, but not for Gauff. She laid her racquet flat underneath the ball and let it bounce up and onto Jabeur’s side of the court for the simplest of winners.
That deft, logical play was a microcosm of what Gauff has been doing well lately, why she is into her first Grand Slam quarterfinal at 17, why she has won nine straight matches and 13 of her last 14, and why she’s the rare American who relishes the chance to play on clay. The Floridian won the French Open girls’ event in 2018; now she’s three matches from winning the women’s title in a field that, collectively, has only slightly more experience on stages like this than she does.
“This is I think my second or third time in the second week of a Slam,” she said this week, “and I will say this is probably, like my journey to it, has probably been the most professional—no, you know, unnecessary three-set matches or stuff like that.
“I think you can see that I’m improving and making smarter decisions on the court.”
You could certainly see it in the way she handled Jabeur, a talented and difficult opponent who usually runs her opponents around with drop shots and gives them no rhythm. From the start, Gauff didn’t let Jabeur put her on a string. The American stood close to the baseline, took full cuts at mid-court balls, and kept moving forward from there. She was 13 for 17 at net, and didn’t face a break point. Despite her proactive play, Gauff made just nine unforced errors and didn’t double fault once.
“I just feel like this has been the most consistent, like, tennis I have played at this level,” Gauff said today. “Hopefully I can keep that going.”
At the start of the season in Australia, when she lost early at a major for the third straight time, it looked to me as if Gauff could be in for the tennis version of a rebuilding year. I thought, at her age, she would need a season or two to put her fairytale debuts of 2019 behind her, and polish her game to the point where she was an established, consistent Top 20 player. Her forehand was erratic, she needed to learn how to construct points instead of relying so much on her speed, and she had trouble closing out matches even when she had a big lead. Most important, she was struggling with double faults, to the point where it looked like it might become a career-threatening issue.
Now all of those problems have vanished, seemingly at once. Gauff is using her forehand to set up her more lethal backhand; she’s using her speed for offense as well as defense; she’s finishing matches efficiently instead of letting her opponents back in; and her serve is a weapon instead of a liability.
I just feel like when I first came on tour, I felt like I had pressure to win and do all this, because people came out with a lot of expectations for me, saying I was going to be the next this or next that. After having conversations with different coaches and different players that are on tour, I realized, I’ve just got to be myself and have fun on the court.
“I’m definitely still learning,” Gauff said. “I’m going to always still be learning no matter how many matches I win. But for me, it’s just being patient and shot selection I think is really important on clay because you’re not going to have too many outright winners on clay. And also, just using all areas of the court.”
Most remarkable is how Gauff has cut the double faults out so quickly. This is a problem even high-level players can struggle with for their entire careers. Gauff says the answer was simple: Practice.
“I just spent a lot of reps on it, especially since Madrid,” she said of her serve. “I think I had a lot of double faults that match, and I’ve just been serving pretty much every day. Not really focusing on so much the speed of it. Just feeling confident because the problem was my confidence on the serve, like I would play in practice, make 50 second serves in a row, and then I get to the match and get nervous. Now I don’t feel as nervous when I’m serving.”
But Gauff’s ascent this year hasn’t been all about work. It has also been about what it should be about for a 17-year-old: Fun. She says she has done her best to forget about the pressure that comes with being a prodigy, with having big sponsors, with growing up in public, with traveling through Europe with your parents and going to work every day instead of hanging out with your friends back home. This weekend, Gauff talked about dealing with all of that, and going back to what she loved about tennis in the first place, that it was fun.
“I just feel like when I first came on tour, I felt like I had pressure to win and do all this, because people came out with a lot of expectations for me, saying I was going to be the next this or next that,” she said. “After having conversations with different coaches and different players that are on tour, I realized, I’ve just got to be myself and have fun on the court.
“I will say I’m having fun on the court, even in the pressure moments. Like I remember in my first round this week, even though I was down, like, set points and had a really tough tiebreaker, I was really enjoying that competitiveness and being under pressure. I feel like maybe a year, probably like two years ago or a year ago, that’s probably a moment that I wouldn’t be in, I would be super stressed and I wouldn't enjoy it. I think now I've just been really appreciating these moments on tour because I have to remind myself, like, so many people are working hard to be where I’m at today.
“The least I can do is just enjoy it, because, you know, you never know when life—you never know when life is going to be taken from you, and I just want to really live it to the fullest.”
The more fun Coco has on court, the more fun it is to watch her play. She’s no longer a Cinderella, but whether it takes days or weeks or years, it looks like she’ll be something much better soon: a major champion.