At 17, Gauff Focusing On Her Tennis Path, Journey

Coco Gauff (photo: Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith)

CHARLESTON, S.C./WASHINGTON, April 7, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

For all of the hype that has accompanied the rise of American teen prodigy Coco Gauff since her 2019 debut at Wimbledon, she has very little experience playing on clay. One would never have guessed this after watching her 6-3, 6-0 victory in her Volvo Car Open debut Tuesday evening.

Playing on the green clay of Althea Gibson Club Court at the LTP-Daniel Island Tennis Center in Charleston, S.C., for the first time, Gauff, 17, is playing just her third WTA tournament on clay following appearances last year in Rome and at Roland Garros. The 14th seed Gauff’s straight-set victory against Bulgaria’s Tsvetana Pironkova advanced her to face Liudmila Samsonova of Russia Wednesday afternoon. Against Samsonova, the No. 36 Gauff rallied to win five of the last six games of the match to prevail, 4-6, 6-1, 6-4, and move into the round of 16, the furthest she’s advanced in a clay-court tournament.

Despite committing six double faults in the opening set against Pironkova, Gauff found her footing and inner calmness as the 68-minute match progressed and earned her first victory in Charleston. The win improved her 2021 win-loss record to 12-6, which includes a semifinal run in Adelaide and a quarterfinal finish in Dubai, both on hard courts.

“It definitely means a lot, especially since I played pretty well,” Gauff said during a virtual interview with media shortly after her win over Pironkova. “When it got close in the first set, I was able to control the points and find my calmness and pull through. Pretty much, all of my double faults were pretty good misses long. Those are the misses that I want. My serve is constantly evolving. I feel like even though I had more double faults than I would like, I feel like those are the missing that I want and it’s going to help me in the next couple of matches. The first match is always the toughest.”

Last year, Gauff went 2-2 on red clay, beating Ons Jabeur in Rome and Johanna Konta in the French Open. Her losses came a round later in each tournament, first to Garbiñe Muguruza at Rome and Martina Trevisan at Roland Garros. Despite the limited number of professional matches that she’s played on the red dirt, Gauff does feel a sense of comfort moving on the surface. As a junior, she won the 2018 Roland Garros girls’ singles title.

Just exactly what does Gauff like most about playing on clay? “I definitely like sliding and, for me, I’m a pretty good mover on hard courts. So, I think that translates on clay, especially with sliding. I think I move quicker on clay because you don’t have the hard stops and to be able elongate your steps, if that makes sense. On clay, I have more time to prepare my shots and I don’t feel as rushed on clay,” she said.

“Green is a lot more unpredictable [than red clay]. Each court is different. That’s just the way it is, both in Charleston and all over the world. For me, it’s a lot dustier and a little bit more slippery. This is the kind of clay I grew up on in Florida. I’m more familiar with it. Transitioning to red clay, I think it helps to play on the green clay a little bit. I think [Charleston] will help me for European clay.”

After Charleston, Gauff plans to play in Madrid and Rome as a lead up to Roland Garros. “I’m super excited to be playing in Charleston. My expectations for the clay season are to see how I can do,” she said. “Last year [at Rome and the French Open] I didn’t have better results. So, I want to see if I can build off that and do better. [This week] will be definitely be a good test to see if how much I’ve improved in a year.”

Against the 113th-ranked Pironkova, Gauff overcame six double faults by hitting four aces and winning 78 percent (18 of 23) of her first-serve points. She outpointed her opponent 65-41. On Wednesday, Gauff’s busy day included playing both singles against the 110th-ranked Samsonova, then teaming with Caty McNally to beat Sofia Kenin and Bethanie Mattek-Sands, 6-3, 6-3, in an All-American first-round doubles match to advance to the quarterfinal round.

Earlier this week, Gauff sat down with international media covering the Volvo Car Open to talk about the success she’s enjoyed at such a young age – think back to her Wimbledon debut and world breakthrough at age 15 in 2019, when she beat her idol Venus Williams in the first round – and how she’s learned the virtue of patience. When she was asked who is the voice in her head that tells her she still has plenty of time to develop her game, Gauff responded she listens attentively to her father, Corey, who is her primary coach, and also to her others, including coach/advisor Patrick Mouratoglou, who is well-known as the longtime coach for 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams.

“You want results to happen fast, but I’m also still developing my game and figuring out how I want to play on the court, how I want to construct my points,” said Gauff, who is playing in Charleston for the first time, following her Miami Open first-round loss to Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia, 1-6, 6-2, 6-3. “So, it’s definitely a learning process. I feel like every tournament, even though some tournaments I don’t do as well as others, I’m getting better and closer to figuring out my game and figuring out what I like to do.”

The bottom line according to Gauff – and what enables her to stay grounded and focused – is she’s not letting external pressure get to her. While she’s always polite and accessible when sitting down to interviews with tennis media, she doesn’t let the headlines get to her head. Win or lose, she’ll always tell it like it is.

“A lot of people have opinions on your, on how they think you should play,” Gauff said. “But I think it’s important that you focus on your journey, your path. You’re going to have a different path than other players. That’s what I’ve been working on lately, just focusing on my journey and my path.”

Biggest career win for Badosa

No. 71 Paula Badosa of Spain scored the biggest win of her career in beating World No. 12 Belinda Bencic from Switzerland, 6-2, 6-7 (2), 6-1. It marked the first Top 20 win for the 23-year-old Badosa, who needed five match points to put away the victory over the No. 5 seed on Althea Gibson Club Court Wednesday afternoon.

According to Badosa, beating Bencic took a huge mental effort. Now, the Spanish No. 3 has advanced to play No. 118 Caty McNally of the United States in Thursday’s third round. McNally took out No. 47 Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia, 7-6 (3), 2-6, 6-4, about the same time that Badosa was wrapping up her triumph against Bencic.

“It was tough; I couldn’t close the second set, I was very nervous,” Badosa said during a post-match interview with Tennis Channel, “but I think I’m happier to win the match like this because it was very tough mentally losing the second set. Then, coming back and being strong and playing the third set the way I played, I’m very happy.”

After winning the opening set, Badosa was ahead 5-3 and twice served for the match during the second set. Soon, Bencic recovered and dominated Badosa during a tie break, winning it to force a deciding set. From there, Badosa jumped out to a double-break lead at 5-0 before Bencic was able to hold her serve. Two more match points came and went before Badosa finally connected on match point number five. It ended with a 10-shot rally in which Bencic netted the last shot of the two-hour and 21-minute match.

Badosa recalled playing Bencic as a young junior, losing 6-0, 6-0. She said: “I’ve known Belinda since we were 10-years-old. She’s always been the best in our age-group. She’s an unbelievable player.” So, perhaps, Wednesday’s victory was a bit of revenge for her long-ago junior loss. “I’m very happy with this win,” said Badosa, smiling as she spoke.

Barty sharp in return to clay

World No. 1 and top seed Ashleigh Barty was successful in her first match on clay since winning the 2019 Roland Garros title, her only Grand Slam crown. The affable Aussie beat No. 77 Misaki Doi of Japan, 6-2, 6-1, needing just 62 minutes to advance to Thursday’s third round against No. 52 Shelby Rogers, who rallied to beat No. 13 seed Amanda Anisimova, 1-6, 7-5, 6-4, Wednesday night.

Barty looked comfortable in hitting seven aces and 23 winners and converted five of seven break-point opportunities against Doi, who was held to just six winners while committing 19 unforced errors. She broke Barty just once in three tries. Barty outpointed Doi 60-33 en route to her 15th victory of the 2021 season.

“I think you have to view it as an opportunity to try and build some comfort,” Barty said during her virtual press conference shortly after her win. “Coming here from Miami to play my first match, it was important to let my body rest and to also try and prepare to change surfaces. It was a quick turnaround. I felt great out there tonight. I thought the conditions here are very quick. It’s not your traditional European red clay but it’s a nice feel. I’m glad I was able to get through [the match].”

Tennis TourTalk asked Barty about the long gap in between clay matches for her and whether it seemed odd not having played an official contest on clay since winning Roland Garros in 2019. She said: “Yes, in a way I think last year was very challenging for a lot of people around the world. I still during the middle part of the year (2020) tried to keep some consistency with the way schedule usually flows. The only surface I didn’t hit on last year was grass, which broke my heart a little bit. I still hit on clay in the middle of the year, during the Australian winter and played some practice sets. Obviously, it was in a period where we were unsure of what my schedule would look like. It was a nice start here tonight in Charleston, beautiful court, beautiful conditions. I’m glad I get another chance to play here as well.”

Wednesday’s Volvo Car Open results

Thursday’s Volvo Car Open order of play

Around the Volvo Car Open

• In an all-American matchup on Althea Gibson Club Court, unseeded Lauren Davis earned her second career Top 5 win and fifth against Top 10 opposition with her 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 triumph over World No. 4 and second seed Sofia Kenin. Davis overcame seven breaks of her own serve by breaking Kenin’s serve eight times in 22 opportunities. Although Kenin struck 32 winners, she was also done in by committing 51 unforced errors. It was the third time this season that Davis has come back to win after losing the first set. Next, she will face another American, Coco Gauff, on Thursday.

Tennis TourTalk asked Davis what she was most proud of in her win against Kenin, whom she hit 24 winners against and outpointed 95-89. She said: “I’m most proud of the fact that I went in with a certain game plan and when I found it wasn’t working so much – and I was uncomfortable – so I really dug deep and thought about how I could beat [Sofia] and found that heavy deep balls weren’t her favorite.

“Being on clay, the ball bounces high and pushing [your opponent] back is very effective. I did that. Also, I changed my serve a bit. I made more first serves, put more height on the ball, more topspin. When you get your first serve in, it makes your life a lot more easier.” 

• With No. 9 seed Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic forced to withdraw Wednesday morning due to illness, replaced by lucky loser Whitney Osuigwe of the United States, it presented an opportunity for 162nd-ranked Japanese qualifier Kurumi Nara. She took advantage of it and beat the No. 168 Osuigwe 6-1, 6-4 to advance to Thursday’s third round against No. 15 seed Veronika Kudermetova of Russia, who defeated American wild card Emma Navarro, 6-4, 6-4.

• No. 12 seed Ons Jabeur of Tunisia needed just 67 minutes to defeat American wild card Hailey Baptiste, 6-3, 6-3, to move into the third round against No. 59 Alizé Cornet of France, who upset  No. 7 seed Elise Mertens, 7-5, 6-3, in two hours and six minutes. Jabeur hit four aces and won 75 percent of her first-serve points. She converted four of eight break-point opportunities and outpointed Baptiste 67-54.

“I’m enjoying being on clay; I like how slow sometimes it is,” Jabeur told Tennis TourTalk after her second-round win. “It gives me time to hit returns. I enjoy sliding. The drop shots are good, too.”

In a battle of unseeded players, No. 91 Danka Kovinic of Montenegro won back-to-back matches for the first time this season with her 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 win over Canada’s 72nd-ranked Leylah Fernandez. Kovinic converted six of nine break points and outpointed Fernandez 93-85, and next will face No. 3 seed Petra Kvitova in Thursday’s third round.

What they’re saying

What they’re telling Tennis TourTalk

During Petra Kvitova‘s virtual press conference following her second-round win Tuesday, Tennis TourTalk asked the two-time Wimbledon champion whom she patterned her game after when she was young and growing up in the Czech Republic. The answer: Hall of Famer Martina Navratilova who, like Kvitova, was a left-handed hitter who combined power with a sense of graceful movement on the court.

“Yeah, for sure, when I was younger, I liked to play more than to watch tennis on the TV. But, of course, my dad, he teaches tennis himself through the wall,” Kvitova recalled, smiling as she shared the anecdote.

“He was rather passionate about tennis and he was watching a lot of tennis, reading the books, everything. So, he always showed me Martina, of course, plaything in the Wimbly, left, serve and volley.

“So, for sure, if I should say one name, it will be Martina, for sure. She is from Czech as well. I know she is American, but I’m still taking her as a Czech and she is a huge legend and a great player. She was unbelievable.”