U.S. Open | Will the Summer of Coco extend to Flushing Meadows?

After an opening-round defeat at Wimbledon, the 19-year-old Gauff has been the player to beat on the North American hard-court swing. If she can maintain this form, the World No. 6 will be a formidable threat at the US Open over the next fortnight

August 26, 2023 12:20 am | Updated 04:12 pm IST

Roaring success: Coco Gauff has raised her level in recent months. Last week, she became the youngest winner at Cincinnati, her second  title in three tournaments. | Photo credit: Getty Images

Roaring success: Coco Gauff has raised her level in recent months. Last week, she became the youngest winner at Cincinnati, her second  title in three tournaments. | Photo credit: Getty Images

Stung by a first-round exit at Wimbledon this year, Coco Gauff spent a “a lot of nights crying and trying to figure it all out”. 

The American teenage prodigy had been picked out for greatness by several tennis luminaries, including 18-time Major winner Chris Evert. But while Gauff’s credentials of being a world-class player were never in doubt — she has been a regular feature in the WTA top 10 since September 2022 — people were beginning to talk about her lack of progress in Grand Slam events. The criticism peaked after the loss to Sofia Kenin on the grass at SW19.

“I told myself I can either let this crush me or make me rise and I decided to make myself rise from it,” Gauff said. She vowed to channel the frustration she felt into improving her game as she continued her quest for a Grand Slam breakthrough. “I have to go back to the drawing board and see where I need to improve,” she said in London.

Renewed vigour

After a period of introspection and problem-solving, Gauff hit the North American hard courts ahead of the US Open with renewed vigour. 

The results show that her process is working. Since the despair of Wimbledon, the 19-year-old has won 11 of 12 matches. She was victorious in Washington DC, her first 500-level title, and reached the quarters in Montreal before completing the biggest triumph of her young career in Cincinnati, a 1000-level event where she beat World No. 1 Iga Swiatek for the first time.

Troubleshooting: Aware that her forehand was a weakness, Gauff has worked on altering her footwork to get into better positions to hit the stroke with more venom. | Photo credit: Getty Images

Troubleshooting: Aware that her forehand was a weakness, Gauff has worked on altering her footwork to get into better positions to hit the stroke with more venom. | Photo credit: Getty Images

Gauff became the youngest winner of the Cincinnati WTA title and the first teenager to notch up five career titles since Caroline Wozniacki in 2008-09. On this form, the World No. 6 looks poised to be a real threat at Flushing Meadows, where the final Major of the year — the US Open — starts on Monday. 

So what has Gauff done to elevate her game since the start of the hard-court swing?

She acknowledged after the defeat to Kenin that her forehand, which opponents were targeting successfully, needed work. 

It was a line of analysis other experts had forwarded as the reason for her struggles, as well. Veteran coach Rick Macci, who has worked with the likes of Venus and Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Jennifer Capriati and Andy Roddick, told OLBG, a sports betting community, that Gauff’s vulnerable forehand needed a technical overhaul while her serve could do with “rewiring”.

“For me, she’s the best athlete on the tour, she’s an Olympic sprinter with a racquet in her hand,” Macci said. “Mentally, she has it. Her backhand is money, and her volley is great. The serve, I would rewire slightly, it’s loose, it’s big, it’s free, but it isn’t quite as good as it could be. 

“The muscle memory on the forehand has been there for so long. If she took a bit of time out and modified that, she would have so much ability… A completely new stroke … would fully change her career. It could go from her weakest shot to her best shot.”

Putting in the work

Gauff has worked with new coach Pere Riba on altering her footwork so she consistently gets into better positions to strike the forehand and use it as a weapon. “She’s already near the top, but there is a lot of room to get better,” said Riba, a former top-100 player. An excellent defender who can stay in rallies, Gauff wants to dictate terms more often in a match — she is looking to strengthen her first-strike capability, knowing how much more formidable that would make her.

Going big: Gauff has hit the 126mph mark on her serve, but wants to continue to increase the average speed of her first delivery as she adopts a more aggressive style. | Photo credit: Getty Images

Going big: Gauff has hit the 126mph mark on her serve, but wants to continue to increase the average speed of her first delivery as she adopts a more aggressive style. | Photo credit: Getty Images

“I should be playing that aggressive style, focusing on my serve plus one,” Gauff said, referring to the first two shots of a point. “There are times I’ve served 126 mph, [but] I’m not going to hit 126 every time. But I definitely want to increase my first-serve speed average. It’s not that I can’t get there; it’s that sometimes I need to trust in it. So it’s committing on the serve every single point.”

These improvements were shown off to spectacular effect in Cincinnati, especially during the semifinal win over Swiatek, the dominant force in women’s tennis. Gauf had never taken a set off the Pole in seven previous meetings, which included a heartbreaking loss in the 2022 Roland Garros final. The teenager had to win to turn the corner psychologically, to truly believe she could beat the very best. 

Gauff served big and played sensational defence to secure a hard-fought victory, overcoming several moments of doubt during the tight three-setter. “I knew playing her was going to be tough, nothing was going to be given to me,” she told Tennis Channel. “I took my opportunities when I got them and just fought for every point. I was a little negative in the second set but I got it back and I was just telling myself, ‘You’re a warrior, you can do this.’

“I was just saying, ‘I’m Coco Gauff and I can do it.’ I felt from the moment I stepped onto the court that I wasn’t going to lose this match even when the moments got tough. It shows that I can be at that level… and I still think that I’m not even at the peak of my game.”

Growing into her game

Gauff, who made her pro debut as a 15-year-old, does not expect to peak until her mid-20s. “Most tennis players ... are peaking around 22 to 26. I started so young, so I wasn’t really strong enough to hit and close the point. In juniors, I was a very aggressive player. But some things that were winners in juniors are not winners in pros. So I had to rely on [my defence] just to stay in matches. Now I feel like I have the strength and mentality to execute those offensive shots.”

Having had to deal with the weight of expectations for most of her young life, Gauff does not want to engage with predictions that she will break through at the US Open. She is choosing instead to focus on the process that has helped her play her best tennis during the hard-court swing. 

“I believe in just, you give it your all,” she said. “That’s all you can do. I’m going to give it my all in the US Open. If things go great, that’s exciting. If not, I go back and work hard and get ready for the next one. That’s kind of the mentality you have to have.” 

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