Is Coco Gauff on the brink of her first major title?
September 5, 2023
NEW YORK — Coco Gauff knew she needed to make a change.
She had just lost in the first round of Wimbledon — her earliest exit in four appearances at the All England Club — and it was the latest disappointing result for the 19-year-old. She had been so close to a major breakthrough since bursting onto the scene in 2019 but hadn’t been making the progress she knew she was capable of.
So while she was still in London, she strategized with her agent and parents for the next phase of her career. They called Brad Gilbert, the player-turned-coach who had worked with Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and Andy Murray, to see if he would be interested in meeting with them. He agreed. They met for an hour during the tournament’s middle Sunday and talked about tennis and life. Two weeks later, they brought him on for a trial run as a consultant during the 500-level Citi Open in Washington, D.C., joining her newly hired coach Pere Riba.
“[I] feel like I’m in a rebuilding period,” Gauff said ahead of the tournament at the end of July. “I’m trying to hit the next gear of my game. I feel like I have the foundation in my game. Now it’s building around that, it’s building the house, I guess, essentially. I have the land and I need to build the house on top of it, make it as extravagant and big and pretty as possible.”
With her new team in place, Gauff wasted no time in the building process. She breezed through the draw and won — the biggest title of her career up to that point. Gilbert’s contract was extended, and Gauff has had a dominant rise since. She won the 1000-level title at the Western & Southern Open, and in the semifinals there, had her first-ever win in eight tries over world No. 1 Iga Swiatek.
Her blistering-hot summer has yet to cool. On Sunday, she defeated Caroline Wozniacki 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 to advance to the quarterfinals at the US Open.
And now, instead of the highly anticipated quarterfinal clash against Swiatek, Gauff will face 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko, who upset Swiatek in three sets Sunday. Gauff has the chance to advance to the first US Open semifinal of her career. And while she reached the French Open final in 2022 — where she she lost to Swiatek in straight sets — a major title has perhaps never felt more in reach than it does now.
“Coco is on the rise,” said 23-time major champion Novak Djokovic earlier this week. “She’s still young, but now [with] Brad Gilbert on her side with the great experience of coaching some of the greats, I think things are coming together for her. She played really good tennis in Cincinnati and also she’s been playing well here. … I’m sure that she has very high hopes for the US Open, and she should.”
Entering Tuesday’s match with a 15-1 record on the hard court this summer, Gauff has dazzled crowds with her power and her relentless endurance. And in New York, it has been her fighting spirit that has gotten fans buzzing. In two of her four matches, she needed to come back after dropping the first set. But with her back against the wall, she found a way. She is now the first American woman to reach back-to-back US Open quarterfinals as a teenager since Serena Williams in 1999-2001.
“I’m figuring out these situations, making it easier and easier as the matches go,” Gauff said after she rallied for a three-set victory over Elise Mertens in the third round. “I mean, when I’m playing not my best, [I’m] still able to figure out how to win these matches, it’s good.”
Gauff has played Ostapenko twice in her career, and they each have won once. Ostapenko, 26, was victorious 7-5, 6-3, in their last meeting earlier this year in the fourth round of the Australian Open. Gauff wasn’t sure if she would be facing Ostapenko or Swiatek when she addressed the media Sunday, but said she would need to bring a similar game plan against either player.
“With Jelena, she’s a ball striker,” Gauff said. “She’s hot or cold, to be honest. Same thing [as facing Swiatek], honestly. Just staying in the match. I might get some more free points with her, more so than Iga. Maybe not. Maybe she’ll hit so many winners.”
Ostapenko predicted it was going to be a “very tough match” and acknowledged the crowd would loudly support Gauff.
Gauff has been compared to many of the game’s best throughout her brief career, but there’s another comparison that has become too tantalizing not to mention: Roddick. The last American man to win a major title at the US Open in 2003, Roddick had begun working with Gilbert earlier that summer and won multiple titles before arriving in New York. Roddick turned 21 during the tournament and achieved his major breakthrough at his home Slam with the supportive crowd behind him.
Can Gauff — who was feeding off the energy from the fans and calling for more down the stretch against Wozniacki — do the same thing 20 years later?
When speaking to ESPN last month, Gilbert said they weren’t thinking that far ahead.
“She’s had a lot of pressure on her to win Slams, but we’re just thinking about the little things at the moment, which are more important,” Gilbert said. “I think tactically about each match … what she needs to do, her strengths, opponent’s weaknesses, what they’re trying to do. I really think about that a lot because that’s what the controllable is each match, and the thing that maybe is my biggest strength …the only thing that matters is the next match. I just try to keep it simple. Here’s what you have to do in this match and nothing beyond that.”
There have been some moments of generational divide for the pair, including when Gauff thought his reference to the Eagles, the band, was about the football team. And she told Gilbert she didn’t know who Tom Petty or the Grateful Dead were. But it has provided some comic relief. Gilbert, 62, said he sends her songs and “she keeps saying she’ll listen to them.” (Gauff confirmed she had not yet done so on Sunday.)
But even if Gilbert’s favorite musical artists don’t end up on her playlists, he is impressed by her never-ending curiosity, especially in finding ways to improve on the court.
While many were fixated on the struggles she was having earlier in the season with her forehand, Gilbert said he never brought it up. Instead they have “put a little bit more shape on it,” but mostly they’ve focused on other areas of her game, like moving back on returns and finding ways to take advantage of her ability to get anywhere on the court.
“She moves better than anybody on the WTA Tour, and I think that’s more of an asset that she can use,” Gilbert said.
Gauff said her new team and her recent results have given her more confidence and made a difference in how she approaches the game.
“I trust the work that I’ve done in practice,” Gauff said. “I hope that I can continue to translate that into matches. I think just trusting myself … seeing a different perspective can sometimes just change things completely. I think I have a new perspective, and I’m enjoying it a lot.”
During Sunday’s victory over Wozniacki, Gauff was broken in the first game of the match and then fell into a 2-0 hole, but she was undeterred. She then won the next three and six of the final seven. Wozniacki found her rhythm in the second set, but it was all Gauff in the decider. She never gave Wozniacki a chance to get back into the match and closed out the final set in 32 minutes.
“I knew I had to be aggressive today,” Gauff said on court after the match. “In some moments I missed, but I was happy I was able to get back and focus.”
And each hard-fought win — especially one over a Grand Slam champion, former world No. 1 and someone she considers an “inspiration” — has given Gauff more self-belief and confidence. She is not only the favorite to beat Ostapenko but to win the title, according to Caesar’s Sportsbook.
But Gauff didn’t speak beyond the quarterfinals when talking to the media Sunday. While others are dreaming of her hoisting the trophy next weekend, she has refused to give in to the hype and made it clear she was anything but satisfied with her performance.
The house that she referenced in July is nowhere near complete.