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“Tennis is learning”: The education of—and by—Coco Gauff continues in Cincinnati
What the 19-year-old can teach the rest of us after winning the the biggest title of her career at Western & Southern Open.
Published Aug 21, 2023
WATCH: Gauff spoke to the media after winning the biggest title of her young career in Cincinnati.
CINCINNATI, Ohio—When Coco Gauff was asked this week about her sprinting skills, she said she preferred the 400 meters to the 100 at school.
“I would really crush people” at that distance, she said.
Why was the 400m her specialty?
“Because I don’t get tired,” she said. “When I was younger, my mom would say I used to run all day, not ever get tired.”
If you thought the 19-year-old would be any worse for wear, physically or mentally, after her cathartic, hard-fought, three-set win over No. 1 Iga Swiatek on Saturday, you might not know Coco. On Sunday, she came back a little more than 24 hours later and beat a very in-form opponent, Karolina Muchova, in very high—as in 90 degrees—heat and humidity.
Gauff’s tenser-than-it-sounds 6-3, 6-4 win capped an extraordinary run through the pre-US Open hard-court season for the Floridan. Since adding Brad Gilbert as her co-coach with Pere Riba three weeks ago, Gauff is 11-1. She won her first 500-level title, in Washington, D.C. She beat Swiatek for the first time in eight tries. And with her win over Muchova, she walked away with her first WTA 1000 title.
When Gauff lost to Sofia Kenin in the first round at Wimbledon, it felt like a calamity. Gauff herself said she did “a lot of praying” at first to try to get over it. Now, just a few weeks later, that defeat is starting to look like the wake-up call she needed. After stagnating for much of 2023, she has a new sense of purpose, and a renewed sense of self-belief, with Gilbert in her corner.
There’s definitely been moments where I feel like, looking back, I maybe could have implemented that [aggressive] style of play. But I don’t look at it as ‘I wish I did this, I wish I did that.’ I think it’s just part of learning. Maybe those mistakes are the mistakes I needed to make to help me improve in the future. Coco Gauff
“He’s just making me be serious,” Gauff said, “but also enjoying the game and thriving and being excited for those types of matches, and being physical every point.”
That’s what Gilbert emphasizes when he coaches her during matches: “Make the points physical now,” he urges her over and over. In that sense, he understands Gauff’s greatest strength: That ability to run—very fast—all day and not get tired. According to Muchova, it was the difference in the final. The Czech struggled to recover from a series of three-set wins last week, while Gauff was fine even after her long Swiatek semi.
“It was very hot. Coco played great. She kept me in the rallies. I felt that I miss a little,” Muchova said. “Yeah, honestly I was a little bit tired, so it was tough to keep up with her.”
But speed and stamina aren’t Gauff’s only assets. So is her mindset, which is upbeat and down to earth at the same time. This week TENNIS.com’s David Kane asked whether, now that she’s trying to play more offensively and succeeding, she regrets any “missed opportunities” when she could have played that way in the past. Her answer was striking, and something we might all keep in mind.
“I wouldn't say 'missed opportunities,’ because tennis is learning,” Gauff said. “There’s definitely been moments where I feel like, looking back, I maybe could have implemented that style of play. But I don’t look at it as ‘I wish I did this, I wish I did that.’ I think it’s just part of learning.
“Maybe those mistakes are the mistakes I needed to make to help me improve in the future.”
Through the week in Cincinnati, Gauff was careful to remind everyone that one month with a coaching team isn’t enough time to make any real changes in her game. Those will come with time. But she cited three of her weaknesses—serve, forehand, and return—and said she was happy with all of them right now. She beat Swiatek in part with her serve, she broke Muchova over and over with her return, and she used her forehand effectively against both.
She said she even learned something new at the end of the final. Serving for the match at 5-2, she played conservatively and waited for Muchova to miss. But Muchova didn’t miss. She broke her, and held for 5-4. Gauff made sure not to make the same mistake twice. This time she took the initiative, and held at love for the biggest title of her career.
“I think in those match points I was like, ‘Just get the ball in.’ I think that was the wrong mentality,” Gauff said. “In the [second] service game I just told myself, ‘Close how you know how to close, which is hitting your spots and going for your shots.’ That’s what I did.”
“It was two different mentalities. Obviously one was more successful than the other. I think I'll have to keep that one going forward when I have many more matches like this where I need to close in these tight moments.”
The education of Coco Gauff continues. I have a feeling she’s going to have a few things to teach the rest of the us in the coming years.