Coco Gauff ready for the red clay in Paris

Every time I watch Cori “Coco” Gauff play a tennis match, there comes a point where I find myself marveling over the fact this rising talent is still just a teenager.

It is an awesome moment of reflection because inherent in the realization that Gauff is just 17 is an exciting anticipation that the best is yet to come.

After capturing her second singles title on the Women’s Tennis Association tour in Parma, Italy, this past weekend, Gauff heads into the French Open tournament at Roland Garros with a career-high ranking of No. 25 and hopes of adding the women’s championship trophy to the one she won as a junior three years ago. The victory also vaulted Gauff ahead of Madison Keys, Jessica Pegula and Alison Riske in the race for the fourth spot on the U.S. Olympic team.

And oh, by the way, Gauff also won the doubles title in Parma, the youngest player to win both singles and doubles at the same tournament since Maria Sharapova in 2004. It was her third WTA doubles title with partner Caty McNally.

At Roland Garros, Gauff will be seeded at a Grand Slam event for the first time since turning pro in 2018. Given her 9-3 record on the red clay in Europe this spring, she deserves to be in the conversation about who will emerge victorious. Having reached the semi-finals at the Italian Open in Rome the week before winning the championship in Parma, Gauff certainly has momentum on her side.

And she’s got game.

But what stands out to me more than anything else is Gauff’s competitive tenacity. She hangs in there when her game is not at its best. She figures out a way to win.

ROME, ITALY – MAY 15: Cori Gauff of the USA plays a forehand during her semi-final match with Iga Swiatek of Poland on Day Eight of the Internazionali BNL D’Italia 2021 at Foro Italico on May 15, 2021 in Rome, Italy.. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Ever since Gauff’s opening round victory over idol Venus Williams in the 2019 Wimbledon Championships, making her an instant international fan favorite, observers have lauded the teenager’s poise under pressure and maturity on and off the court.

One of the Tennis Channel commentators had this to say as Gauff was cruising to a 6-1, 6-3 triumph over Wang Qiang in the championship match in Parma: “For a 17-year-old, it’s been a real experienced performance.” A short while later, the commentator added he was impressed by “the way she carries herself on the court at such a young age. Such a cool head on her young shoulders.”

In the semi-final match against Katerina Siniakova, Gauff showed her ability to reset after going on a walkabout. She won the first set 7-5, then won just one game in the second set, as she began spraying balls all over the court. You could see the resolve in her face as she stormed to a 6-2 third-set victory.   

In reaching the semi-finals at the Italian Open, Gauff took out 4th-ranked, heavy-hitting Aryna Sabalenka in straight sets. She also defeated 19th-ranked Maria Sakkari, 6-1, 1-6, 6-1. She was down a set and a game in the quarterfinal match against Ashleigh Barty but moved on to the semi-finals when the Aussie retired because of an arm injury. She lost the semi-final match to current French Open champion Iga Swiatek.

The first time I saw Gauff play, she was a scrawny 13-year-old competing for the 2017 junior US Open title against another American, Amanda Anisimova. While Gauff showed potential as the youngest ever to play in the final, she seemed no match for Anisimova, who was 16 at the time, and lost 0-6, 2-6. Gauff got her revenge in Parma with a 6-3, 6-3 quarterfinal win.

Since that US Open match, Gauff, an Atlanta native, who now lives in Delray Beach, has progressed remarkably. The following year, she won the girls’ French Open title and was ranked the No.1 player in the world. She also won the US Open girls’ doubles title with Caty McNally. In October 2019, she won her first WTA singles title at Linz, Austria.

In compiling a 73-36 career won-loss record, Gauff has reached the fourth round of the Australian Open in 2020 and 2021 and the fourth round at Wimbledon in 2019. She also reached the third round of the US Open In 2019, she reached the third round of the US Open.

In 2021, Gauff is 23-9 in singles and has won $425,643 in prize money for a career total of nearly $1.5 million. In doubles, she reached a career-high No. 41 with the title in Parma.

Whether this young phenom can add a major title trophy to her collection when she competes in Paris remains to be seen. It’s probably a long shot given some of the heavy hitters, including Serena Williams, who will be in the mix. After all, Gauff’s game is still developing. Her serve can be a liability, as she leads the WTA in double faults.

In an article for The Guardian, writer Tumaini Carayol, notes the flaws in Gauff’s forehand and service motion. But he also points out attributes that make her a formidable opponent against more powerful and/or seasoned veterans.

“Her athleticism is prodigious,” he writes, “and it has marked her as one of the best defensive players in the game…she is excellent at producing quality shots at full stretch and she relishes eking out errors from rivals. Alongside her defensive abilities, Gauff is also resourceful and intelligent on the court.”

Gauff already has the heart of a champion, and that could be enough to carry her to her first major title.

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