Ranking sixth in one’s rarified profession is impressive. Earning $9 million by the age of 19 is even more so.
But for tennis sensation Coco Gauff, who has yet to capture a Grand Slam, it almost feels like a letdown.
Through no fault of her own, Gauff stepped into Serena Williams’ shadow by beating the tennis legend in straight sets at Wimbledon in 2019. She was only 15 at the time, and by advancing to the fourth round, where she fell to eventual-champion Simona Halep, Gauff effectively cast herself as Williams’ successor.
That was four years ago.
Now, on the back of recent hard-court tournament victories in Washington and Cincinnati, Gauff has recaptured the momentum that made her the sport’s brightest star in 2019. The next logical step for the red-hot Atlanta native would be a singles title at the upcoming US Open in Flushing, Queens.
Coco Gauff has won all but one match in August while capturing a pair of singles titles
Gauff raises the Rookwood Cup after defeating Karolina Muchova, of Czech Republic
‘It’s just my dream,’ Gauff recently told The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Gay about winning a Grand Slam. ‘You just try your best and your hardest to fight for that dream.’
Unfortunately for Gauff, that dream briefly seemed like a nightmare. By 2020, she was admittedly battling depression.
As she explained in a post for Behind The Racquet, the problems were isolation and expectations.
‘Throughout my life, I was always the youngest to do things, which added hype that I didn’t want,’ Gauff wrote. ‘It added this pressure that I needed to do well fast. Right before Wimbledon, going back to around 2017/18, I was struggling to figure out if this was really what I wanted. I always had the results, so that wasn’t the issue. I just found myself not enjoying what I loved.’
She tried to fill the void in her life with normal teenage things at her parents’ insistence. She attended homecoming, for instance, but the coronavirus pandemic spoiled her plans for prom and home schooling only exacerbated her loneliness.
Gauff signs autographs and poses for selfies after practice at the US Open Championships
Gauff nearly took a year off, as teenage tennis star Jennifer Capriati did in the mid-1990s before returning to the sport and winning three Grand Slams.
Instead, Gauff stuck with tennis, for better or worse.
‘Choosing not to obviously was the right choice, but I was close to not going in that direction. I was just lost. I was confused and overthinking if this was what I wanted or what others did.
‘It took many moments sitting, thinking and crying. I came out of it stronger and knowing myself better than ever.’
The difference, she explained, was prioritizing herself.
‘I realized I needed to start playing for myself and not other people,’ she said.
The results didn’t immediately improve for Gauff, who, like nearly every other tour pro, is striving for more consistency.
A quarterfinals berth in the 2021 French Open was promising, as was last year’s Finals run at Roland-Garros , but first-round exits at the 2022 Australian Open and last month’s Wimbledon were obvious setbacks.
Now, though, instead of punishing herself for missed opportunities, Gauff is taking a long-term approach. She’s recognizing moments where she’s lacked aggression or focus, and rather than fixating on those mistakes, Gauff says she’s making corrections and moving forward.
‘There’s definitely been moments where I feel like, looking back, I maybe could have implemented that [aggressive] style of play,’ she said after her tournament victory in Cincinnati. ‘But I don’t look at it as ”I wish I did this, I wish I did that.”
‘I think it’s just part of learning. Maybe those mistakes are the mistakes I needed to make to help me improve in the future.’
Pere Riba and Brad Gilbert, Coco Gauff’s new coaches, watch her on Thursday in Queens
Now Gauff is making tangible gains during hardcourt season with the help of her new full-time coach, Pere Riba, and temporary consultant, Brad Gilbert.
While Riba instructed Gauff to tweak her footwork so as to improve her forehand, Gilbert has stressed tempo and taking more time to relax between points.
‘Tempo was one of the main things, and it’s a pretty basic piece of advice,’ Gauff told The Associated Press. ‘Every tennis player, regardless of the level, is told how important time is.
‘But I think just having someone reiterate that to you [was helpful]… After I lose maybe two or three points in a row, maybe take the full 25 seconds to reset, especially if I’m the one serving.’
Such a scenario occurred in Washington earlier this month, when she dropped consecutive points to two-time Grand Slam semifinalist Maria Sakkari in the final.
‘I took time to think about the serve that I wanted to hit,’ she said. ‘I realized in the practices that I do perform better when I take time in between points.’
The results have been impressive, to say the least. While winning in Washington, Gauff dropped only 19 games while facing three of the world’s top-20 in Sakkari, defending champion Liudmila Samsonova and Olympic gold medalist Belinda Bencic.
‘When you say something to her, she analyzes it and she puts in the work,’ Riga told the AP. ‘She is willing to make changes. That gives me a lot of confidence.
‘I see things moving in a really positive way after seeing her make some changes just in these few weeks.’
But perhaps the best gauge of Gauff’s improvement is provided by her closest rivals.
Coco Gauff kisses the trophy after defeating Maria Sakkari, of Greece in Washington
Sakkari described her as a ‘top player,’ adding that ‘there was all this hype for a reason.’
‘She really makes you have to win the match,’ Jessica Pegula, Gauff’s doubles partner, said recently. ‘She’s not going to give you a lot of free points.’
And for a 19-year, who admittedly questioned her own future in the sport a few years ago, that level of mental toughness is a distinct sign of progress.
‘For me, the goal is to win,’ she told People. ‘That’s the ultimate goal. Obviously, there’s minor ones along the way, and I think the biggest one is trying to make sure I control the matches on my side of the court, and I think that will help me get to that ultimate goal.’