On Friday night in New York, a lavish party at the Ziegfield Ballroom commemorated 50 years of the women’s tour. The keynote speech was delivered by Coco Gauff, the 19-year-old American who has long been seen as the future of the sport.
Articulate, charming and blessed with the easy athleticism of a 100-metre hurdler, Gauff famously beat Venus Williams four years ago on her way to the fourth round of Wimbledon. She caused a sensation that summer, not only with her fearless ball-striking, but with her charisma and uncanny maturity.
Caught up in the hype, I characterised Gauff as a meteor who would cause extinction among the older, more established members of Planet Tennis. Yet this proved to be a premature verdict. Gauff would take another three-and-a-bit years to crack the world’s top ten. Handicapped by a wonky forehand and a retriever’s mindset, she showed little sign of emulating Martina Hingis – or even Emma Raducanu – by winning majors as a teen.
Until now, that is. Five months into her 20th year, Gauff arrives in New York on the back of her first real achievement of substance: the capture of the 1,000-point Cincinnati title a week ago. The timing is impeccable, because this is the first US Open to be staged since the retirement of Serena Williams. According to Martina Navratilova, who will be commentating on the tournament for Sky Sports, we are approaching a moment of handover.
“I think Coco’s ready for a symbolic passing of the torch from Serena,” Navratilova said. “There will be a big, big void with Serena not playing. We felt it at Wimbledon as well, but we’ll feel it even more at the US Open, because we now know she’s not going to come back, since she’s had a second baby. And so the spotlight will be on Coco, even though there are plenty of American players that are capable of making some big waves.”
If Gauff was the story of Wimbledon 2019, despite only making the fourth round, something similar could be said of Serena Williams at last year’s US Open. Each of Williams’s three matches on Arthur Ashe Arena had the intensity and aura of a grand-slam final. Her last stand, against Ajla Tomljanovic, found her saving five match points in heroic style before finally succumbing.
How can this year’s event follow such drama? Well, it would certainly help if Gauff could live up to her newfound status as one of the bookies’ favourites. She stands third in line behind Iga Swiatek – the world No1 whom she finally beat in Cincinnati, at the eighth time of asking – and the mighty Belarussian Aryna Sabalanka.
‘Gilbert has saved her emotional energy’
What, then, has changed for Gauff? This is an easy question to answer, because she has completely rethought her coaching arrangements over the summer. Pushing her father Corey into the background, she hired the young Spanish coach Pere Riba in June and then supplemented him with a much bigger name – Brad Gilbert – after suffering a deflating first-round loss at Wimbledon.
Gilbert, now best known as a motormouthed commentator for ESPN, is proper coaching royalty: a man who has already guided Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick to the US Open title, even if he never quite gelled with the young Andy Murray. Were Gauff to deliver in New York over the next fortnight, Gilbert would become the first coach to land both the men’s and women’s crowns.
“Brad was a very smart player,” said Navratilova of the man whose book, Winning Ugly, is an essential text for any club hacker. “He didn’t have that many weapons, but he was able to hide his weaknesses and he made the world’s top ten.
“Working with Coco, Brad has said ‘Okay, the forehand is not as good as the backhand, everybody knows it. But it’s how we get around it, and it’s how we make it better.’ The funny thing is that if your backhand is your strength and you miss two backhands in a match, you’re like ‘It’s okay, no problem.’ But you miss two forehands and it’s like ‘Oh my God, my forehand’s gone to crap again, what am I going to do?’
“So it’s such a mental game that you can play with yourself to not panic. Brad has really helped her there, and he’s also helping her to save energy emotionally. The expectations on her have been so high that she’s been putting a lot of pressure on herself. And her parents too: they were going crazy emotionally [in the player’s box], every match and every point. I’m like, ‘You guys have 20 years ahead of you so save that energy a little bit.’
“It’s great that Coco has so much intensity,” Navratilova concluded, “but you still have to control it. Brad understands that a tennis player is like an hourglass – you only have so much sand to work with. So you need to not open the spout so wide, and then you can be a little more in control of everything.”
‘Now I realise that everybody loses’
Navratilova’s analysis was echoed by Gauff’s own comments last week. When asked about Gilbert’s influence on her, she described him as “A very relaxed guy. Sometimes I’ll be playing practice points with another player, it’s 30-all or deuce, and he’ll say something completely random like a joke.”
This answer surprised many people, given Gilbert’s status as a relentless talker and manic tweeter who hands out quirky nicknames to every player he mentions. (“Sloane Ranger” for Sloane Stephens, to take one example, or “Scrabble” for Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova).
But then, Gilbert is a world expert on the art of silencing your internal demons – a skill which every successful tennis player needs to master. Agassi wrote in his autobiography about how, during their first training session together, Gilbert told him that not every shot has to be a ripper; instead, it’s okay to hit rally balls that give your opponent a chance to miss. “I find peace in his claim that perfectionism is voluntary,” Agassi said.
That was in 1994, as Gilbert was ending his own 14-year professional career. Now, almost 30 years later, he is imparting similar lessons to Gauff. As she said on Friday, “Before I would think too much on a loss and let that loss affect me for some weeks. Now I realise that everybody loses, even the best of the best.”
In recent weeks, the new-model Gauff has sounded much more chilled. Meanwhile her on-court performances have been increasingly assertive, with less of the side-to-side scrambling that had become her trademark. Her much-criticised forehand, which comes loaded with unusually heavy top-spin, is beginning to look like a weapon rather than a liability. Perhaps, finally, the meteor is about to land.