When Coco Gauff came to the French Open this year looking to defend the points she earned as a finalist last year, all eyes, from opponents to experts, were on a chance in her game.
There was never any doubt about her first serve, which she fires at a rapid pace and with increasing precision, nor about her excellent backhand, athleticism, variety and feel for the court. But her forehand was one of the most glaring weaknesses in the top 10.
The difficulty she had with this was undeniable. While the stroke held up in regular medium tempo rallies and was better on slower surfaces like sand, which gave the move a little more time to relax, her extreme western grip and sophisticated swing meant the stroke broke down so often when rushed or if the ball was outside of their strike zone.
As she developed from a newcomer to an established player on tour, the rest of the field began to collectively target the forehand and her problems with it came to the forefront of their own minds. “It is no secret. Everyone tries to play the forehand. “I’m not going to sit here and act like it’s a secret,” Gauff said this summer.
But tennis is such a complicated game. Technology or tactics are only part of the path to success. Little has changed technically since Gauff was dismantled 6-3, 6-0 by Paula Badosa in Madrid in April, and yet she is in her first US Open final after coming through the summer at lightning speed. Since hiring Brad Gilbert to coach alongside Pere Riba, whom she brought on board just before Wimbledon, Gauff has won titles in Washington and Cincinnati and has a 17-1 win-loss record.
The sixth-seeded New York native has been working hard with her new coaches on footwork around the shot. They have focused on ensuring that her steps around the ball are more precise and that, as she strives to become a more attacking player, she is able to get forward sufficiently on offense. But there have been no fundamental changes to technique, and there likely won’t be until she has enough time to train between tournaments. Rather, the transformation of Gauff’s results is a reflection of the importance of mentality.
“I thought to play and win you have to be extremely serious and focused, that’s true, but you still have to enjoy it,” she says. “I think the change is that I’m having more fun.”
Gauff says that, to her surprise, his most prescient advice in one of the first conversations she had with Gilbert wasn’t about her playing. He told her that she needed to smile more and enjoy what she was doing. This initially surprised the 19-year-old, but she has spent this summer emphasizing positivity and having fun in her sport. She also found greater perspective.
“At first I always thought negative things, like, ‘Why is there so much pressure?’ Why is this so difficult? Blah, blah, blah,” she said. “In some ways I realize it’s pressure, but it’s not. I mean, there are people who are struggling to feed their families, people who don’t know where their next meal is coming from, people who have to pay their bills. This is real pressure, this is real hardship, this is real life. In a very privileged position, I get paid to do what I love and receive support to do what I love. That’s not a given for me.”
That perspective and greater acceptance of her circumstances were evident when she was leading by one set in one of the biggest matches of her career to date, her semifinal against Karolina Muchova, before the match was postponed for nearly an hour due to disruptions by climate change protesters the match. Gauff, like many of her generation, asserted that she believes in climate change and described this time of protests as “history-defining moments.”
“I always talk about preaching about what you feel and what you believe. It happened in a peaceful way, so I can’t get too upset about it. Of course I don’t want that to happen if I win 6-4, 1-0 and I wanted the momentum to continue. But hey, if they feel like that’s what they have to do to make their voice heard, I can’t really get upset about it,” she said.
On Saturday, the Georgia teenager will bring her newfound perspective to her biggest game on home soil. It will be brutally difficult. Aryna Sabalenka is not only the toughest player in the world right now, the new No. 1, but it also feels like she has exorcised her biggest demons during this tournament.
Not only did the chase for No. 1 in the rankings seem to weigh heavily on the Belarusian, as she came so close to catching Swiatek several times this year, this nervousness also showed itself so often in Grand Slam semifinals. She was 1-5 in her career and had lost as many comprehensive leads until Thursday night’s incredible comeback win, 0-6, 3-5, 0-15, against Madison Keys. For Gauff, who will be the underdog, all that’s left is to enjoy the challenge ahead.