Few players have burst onto the scene the way Coco Gauff did. Even fewer 15-year-olds.
Gauff’s stunning first-round win over Venus Williams at Wimbledon was one of the moments of 2019. The fact she followed it up with two more wins at SW19 – having already become the youngest player to come through qualifying in the Open Era – and then won her first WTA tournament just a few months later, sent expectations soaring.
Williams, who would lose to Gauff again at the Australian Open at the start of the 2020, said the “sky's the limit” for her fellow American. Serena Williams said she was “nowhere near her level at 15 either on the court or off the court, not even close.”
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After such a meteoric rise, the way Gauff has steadied herself lately has been hugely impressive.
Her 2020 season was not as successful as her breakout year, with a 12-8 win-loss record and a several defeats from winning positions. But she still climbed 21 places in the rankings, beat defending champion Naomi Osaka in the third round of the Australian Open, and made commendable efforts off the court to speak out against racial injustice, including a speech at a protest in Florida.
And if she stabilised slightly last year, then 2021 has seen another sharp rise.
Gauff, who recently turned 17, has made the semi-finals in two tournaments, quarter-finals in two others, and at the weekend won the singles and the doubles at the Emilia-Romagna Open. While the field in Parma was not elite – Gauff was the third seed – she only dropped one set over the week and is the youngest player to win the singles and doubles titles at an event since Maria Sharapova at Birmingham in 2004. Gauff has also now won 20 of her last 26 matches and is set to rise into the top 30 in the world.
"It's not a surface that people associate me with, so it feels good," Gauff said after her Parma double.
"I like the dirt now. I always talk about how I don't like it, but I like it now. Clay shows you a little extra love than the other surfaces do. It's just going home, taking a shower, and I have clay coming out of me from all different places, or clay still in my clothes from weeks later. So that's the only thing I don't like about it. But obviously, performance-wise I do well on it."
Gauff’s title win also moves her up into the fourth and final qualifying spot for the USA Olympic women’s singles team, which will be finalised by rankings after the French Open. Last year was the first time that Gauff played in the main draw at Paris and she lost in the second round after starting with victory over Johanna Konta. This time around she will be the youngest women’s singles seed at any major since 2006, and, with a 12-3 record on clay this year, will be a dangerous opponent for anyone in the draw.
Regardless of how far she goes in Paris, it’s fascinating to think what lies ahead for Gauff. Former French Open champion Sue Barker said last year that she thinks “she has the ability to be the greatest player ever” and will be a “superstar”. Serena Williams’ coach Patrick Mouratoglou has also sung Gauff’s praises after working with her.
“At 14 she was more mature than women on tour who are 25. That’s incredible. She has an inner strength that is completely unusual.”
Gauff admitted last year that she initially struggled to deal with the “hype” around her as a youngster. “It took many moments sitting, thinking and crying. I came out of it stronger and knowing myself better than ever,” she wrote on Behind the Racquet. But her maturity and poise today is remarkable.
On the court she is making improvements - cutting out double faults and working on her forehand - and off the court she handles the media well and is not afraid to open up on challenging questions. In Rome she was asked about the difficulties of working with her father as a coach after Sofia Kenin and Carolina Garcia both made the decision to split from their father-coaches. “It’s definitely complicated at times,” she admitted. “What we do, we do get second opinions from other people, whether it's USTA or Pat Mouratoglou. I think so far that helps a lot because, I mean, he's saying the right things, but sometimes I think it's good just to hear it from another voice.” She also spoke about learning to slow down her breathing when she gets nervous, which is a technique she noticed while watching anime – “shout out to Demon Slayer for helping me”.
Having made the fourth round of two Grand Slams, Gauff’s form over the last month has her well placed to equal or improve on that in Paris.
“I feel really good about going into the French," she said. "I hope I can continue to build and keep getting better. I have a week and a day to get ready. I feel like I'm hitting good, moving good, my body feels good, my mentality and emotionally I feel good. So I think it will be a good tournament for me.”
How far Gauff goes remains to be seen, but she is still heading in the right direction.
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