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On quests for a maiden major, Jessica Pegula and Coco Gauff must beat players who've broken through
In the fourth round, the 28-year-old faces 2021 Roland Garros champion Barbora Krejcikova, while the 18-year-old meets 2017 Roland Garros champion Jelena Ostapenko.
Published Jan 20, 2023
PRESS CONFERENCE: Coco Gauff is into the fourth round
Which Grand Slam singles title is tougher to earn: The first one, which gives you a seat in first-class on tennis’ globetrotting jet; or the second one, which validates your status? Come Sunday, two intriguing round-of-16 matchups will explore these questions.
Americans Jessica Pegula and Coco Gauff are seeking their breakthrough Slam victory. Each is up against a one-time Grand Slam champion. For Pegula, it’s a maiden meeting with 2021 Roland Garros champion Barbora Krejcikova. For Gauff, she plays the 2017 Roland Garros winner, Jelena Ostapenko. Their only prior contest happened more than three years ago, when Gauff beat Ostapenko in the finals of Linz to win her first WTA singles title.
The 28-year-old Pegula has been playing the kind of court-commanding tennis that has taken her from No. 59 at the end of 2020 to her current position of No. 3. A strong work ethic and sharp, clean groundstrokes make for a solid foundation. But perhaps the bigger reason for Pegula’s ascent has been a newly found ability to manage her capacity for perfectionism.
“When I was younger, it came off as kind of a bad attitude,” Pegula said after her 6-0, 6-2 third-round win over Marta Kostyuk. “I'd get really negative or down on myself. It’s tough. But I also think you have to use it as a strength.
“I've kind of been able to take my personality, which even though I’m a perfectionist, I’m still pretty laid back—kind of use that during the matches.”
While Pegula’s style is predominantly linear and concussive, Krejcikova’s approach is eclectic. At a key stage of her development, the Czech was mentored by her compatriot Jana Novotna, a superb net-rusher. Later came several years when most of Krejcikova’s success came in doubles. Her surprise run to the title in Paris revealed a rare blend of speed, spin and forward movement.
Should she beat Pegula, the 20th-seeded Krejcikova will have reached the Australian Open quarterfinals for the third year in a row. Thus far in Melbourne, the 27-year-old has only once dropped four games in a single set.
“I think with every single match I’m getting better and better,” Krejcikova said after her 6-2, 6-3 win over Anhelina Kalinina on Friday. “I think my serve was working really well today. I think I played really good returns. I think from the baseline I played also a very solid game. I think I was moving well.”
Consider Pegula versus Krejcikova a pure tennis experience: a tale of two dialed-in competitors, each seeking to impose and disrupt with precision and poise.
Then there’s Ostapenko, an explosive player in many ways. In form, she can take the racquet out of anyone’s hands. Her ability to time and strike the ball forcefully is breath-taking, a fearlessness that evokes memories of Monica Seles and Maria Sharapova. But when things are not working, Ostapenko’s game can fall off a cliff. Her low-margin playing style has hindered her progress, this week’s run to the round of 16 only the fourth time Ostapenko has gotten that far at a major since her dazzling fortnight in Paris.
Aware of this, Ostapenko devoted her off-season to upgrading her fitness and movement, assets that will help make more sound shot selections.
“I just think now I’m maybe more mature, and maybe sometimes I need to play more confident and to not go for, like, crazy winners,” the 25-year-old said this week. “But also, on the other hand, I have to be aggressive because that's what the opponents don't like and what makes me a dangerous player.”
Commendable as Ostapenko’s desire to improve her tennis skills is, her sportsmanship is reprehensible. One cringe-inducing moment came last summer at Wimbledon, when she failed to convert two match points in a three-set loss to Tatjana Maria. After the match, Ostapenko hurled her water bottle at a chair and later called the winner “lucky.” There have also been numerous occasions when a defeated Ostapenko gives the most perfunctory of post-match handshakes and barely makes eye contact with the victor.
The No. 17 seed now has the chance to reach the quarterfinals of the major played in the nation that personifies sportsmanship, grace and class. Might Ostapenko ever realize that respect for the game and her opponents can actually make it easier to compete effectively?
Gauff understands this thoroughly. She always has. Gauff was 15 in that Linz final. She won the first set 6-3 but was steamrolled by Ostapenko in the second, 6-1. But Gauff weathered the storm, hung tough early in the third, and eventually won it, 6-2. She’s of course an even better player now, at 18, her style emerging as exceptionally skilled in all parts of the court.
Match point of her second-round win over fellow teen prodigy Emma Raducanu revealed much about Gauff’s blossoming skill set. A forehand down-the-line drop shot lured Raducanu forward. Aware that the reply was going to be fairly soft and high, Gauff sprinted towards the service line. Easily fielding Raducanu’s backhand, Gauff feathered a sublime forehand lob volley. Raducanu chased the ball down but could only drive a forehand into the net.
Gauff’s career-long commitment to playing doubles—she and Pegula are seeded second here, behind Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova—has greatly broadened her array. Added to that is Gauff’s love of training and practice.
“I know with the work I put in that I’m a strong player,” Gauff said following the Raducanu match. “I feel like that’s the mentality that I've learned. When you feel like you're the hardest-working person, you know when the moments get close, all that hard work will come out.”
As far as Ostapenko goes, Gauff said, “I think it’s just being offensive when you can. Obviously there's going to be shots that she hits that are just going to be too good, accepting that.”
Acceptance is an intriguing word in tennis. In this specific case, let’s zero in on Gauff’s tipping point shot, her forehand. Two years from now, it will surely have improved. At this stage, though, it’s far less reliable than her extraordinary backhand. Does she accept where it is now, and seek to hit it carefully, with safety and margin? Or will she begin to deploy a viable technique of the future, even if it leads to more errors in the short term?
Neither of these questions offer conclusive answers. But what we’ve come to see from Gauff is that she savors the chance to address these topics and continually pursue improvement. That already makes her a champion.