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“Warrior” Coco Gauff finally solves Iga Swiatek riddle with right balance of attack and defense
After seven losses in straight sets, Gauff won a three-set thriller to reach her first WTA 1000 final.
Published Aug 19, 2023
WATCH: Coco Gauff edged Iga Swiatek for the first time in the semifinals of the Western & Southern Open.
CINCINNATI, Ohio—“Hit your spot!” Brad Gilbert urged Coco Gauff as she set up to serve at 5-4 in the third set on Saturday, two points from her first-ever win over the No. 1 player in the world, Iga Swiatek. Gauff must have been listening, because she proceeded to slide a perfect slice serve onto the sideline for her sixth ace of the match. A few minutes later, she clinched her first win over Swiatek in eight tries, 7-6(2), 3-6, 6-4, in front of a euphoric pro-American crowd here.
Earlier this summer, Gauff put together a two-man coaching team—Gilbert and Pere Riba—expressly for this moment. For most highly-ranked players, the July-August hard-court events in the United States are meant to prepare them for the tournament that matters most, the US Open. And that’s true of Gauff, too.
But beating Swiatek was a goal of almost equal importance.
Before today, she had dropped 14 straight sets to her nemesis, and lost twice to her at Roland Garros. If Gauff ever wanted to be a Slam winner, she would have to stand up to Swiatek someday. In her short time with Gilbert and Riba, Gauff had gone 9-1 and won a title. But if she didn’t show some improvement against Swiatek in this match. it might feel as if she was back at square one.
“She’s not an easy opponent to play, especially against me,” Gauff said of Swiatek on Friday. In the past, she had struggled with the Pole’s ability to change direction with the ball and send rifle shots down the line when most other players would go crosscourt.
“You’re not used to seeing so many winners down the line off of certain shots, so you’re not prepared to even run in that direction,” Gauff said after losing to her last year in Paris.
What was the plan to change that dynamic today? First, she reminded herself of who she was.“‘I’m Coco Gauff and I can do it,’” she said she told herself. “Going into the match, you know you have to give it your all. I felt it, from the moment I walked on the court, that I wasn’t going to lose this match, even when the moments got tough. I was right, I guess.”
As far as how she was going to win, Gauff said she “wanted to make [Swiatek] play.” She would rely on her strengths—speed and defense—while also attacking anything that landed short. She looped her forehands high to Swiatek’s backhand, then injected pace with her backhand. She said she “wanted to go big on every first serve,” and get her speeds into the 110s. Gauff sacrificed accuracy for power—she made just 43% of her first serves, but won 73% of those points.
It was just enough in the end.
Gauff spent a good portion of the afternoon trying, and sometimes failing, to find the right balance between attack and defense.
At the start of one game, Gilbert told her to back up and “play with shape”—i.e., hit with loopy topspin. On the first point, Gauff dutifully moved back and looped a topspin return, but it landed short and led to a Swiatek winner. So before the next point, Gilbert changed gears and told her she could be aggressive with her return. Again Gauff took his advice ... and drilled the ball into the net. When she finally lost the game, she flailed her arms in frustration, exasperated by the conflicting strategies.
In the third set, she found the balance. When the moment called for offense, she stepped in and cracked a cross-court backhand winner. When the moment called for steadiness, she rolled her forehand safe and deep. When the moment called for defense, she scrambled and worked the point until Swiatek finally overhit.
Fortunately for Gauff, Swiatek overhit at all the right times. She gave away the first-set tiebreak with a flurry of errors, and sent a series of balls long and wide on key points late in the third. Gauff kept bombing and kept running all the way through the long, back-and-forth, nerve-wracking final game. Her first serve on her first match point was 122 mph.
Finally, she won it on her fourth match point by making one more ball, and forcing Swiatek to hit one more volley, which floated wide.
“Nothing was going to be given to me today,” said Gauff, who has reached her WTA 1000 final at 19. “'You’re a warrior and you can do this,’” is what she told herself as she closed in perhaps her biggest career victory.
Gauff was asked on Tennis Channel how far she has come since her first-round defeat at Wimbledon, which was just last month.
“I could either let this crush me, or I can rise from it,” she said. “I rose from it.”
There’s still much more room for Gauff to keep rising, but she took a big step upward today.