Coco Gauff’s excellent Adelaide adventure has taken her through qualifying and four three-set thrillers—three of which saw her rally from a set down—to reach her first semifinal of 2021. No. 2 seed Belinda Bencic stands between the American teenager and a second career WTA final, but despite the substantial ranking gap, the Swiss stands at only a slight favorite at -103 to Gauff’s -121, making the marquee semifinal a toss-up.
Bencic’s 2019 season was one to remember as she finally shook off extensive injury woes to make good on her obvious potential. She won her first title in four years at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships and made her first Grand Slam semifinal at the US Open, ending the year with a maiden berth at the WTA Finals in Shenzhen.
From a career-high of No. 4 early last year, Bencic played just one tournament after the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020. Now ranked No. 12, she has been slowly regaining her rhythm with a third-round finish at the Australian Open, where she fell to Elise Mertens in straight sets.
"I just have to get in that stage where I don't think any more about what I have to do on the court," she said of her desire for more matches earlier in the week. "Right now it's just trying to improve everything and it's a lot of focusing on this stuff, but you play your best tennis when you don't have to think about your game, it just happens."
Looking even better in Adelaide, the 23-year-old hasn’t had to face overwhelming opposition in her first two victories over Misaki Doi and Storm Sanders, making Gauff her first big test of the week.
She may at least expect to be fresher than the 16-year-old, who battled back from 4-2 down in each of the final two sets to stifle an on-fire Shelby Rogers in the quarterfinals. Equally resilient against Petra Martic and Kaja Juvan, she showed worrying signs of nerves when it came time to close out Jasmine Paolini in the first round.
Finishing matches has proven increasingly difficult for the fast-rising American—particularly when she was viewed as a favorite, as she was in her Roland Garros defeat to Martina Trevisan and her two Gippsland Trophy odysseys against Jil Teichmann and Katie Boulter, the latter of which ending in a loss from a set and 5-4 up.
Gauff chalks some of that up to the opposition learning more about her game since her shocking Wimbledon breakthrough two summers ago.
"I feel like at Wimbledon I was new, so there wasn't really a 'scout report' against me; now, there is. That's something that I have definitely have stepped up in, as well, and watched a lot more film than I normally would when I was in juniors. In juniors, you just asked a couple players how the person plays, they tell you and you just go out there on court."
Either way, Gauff is an underdog again—if only on paper—and that should help her stay focused when it matters most. Bencic, in turn, will aim to keep the pressure on in the hopes of a quick win and making 2021 look more like 2019 and less like 2020.
The Pick: Coco Gauff