US Open 2023: Coco Gauff's improved play makes her a serious contender at Flushing Meadows

After losing in the first round at Wimbledon last month, Coco Gauff holed up at her London hotel to be alone and think.

About what happened at the All England Club. About how she felt. About what she wanted to do to avoid that sort of result at the next Grand Slam tournament, the U.S. Open, which starts Monday in New York.

“I didn’t leave the room for two days. I like literally didn’t. I got my food ordered to the room,” Gauff said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I realize: Those two days were necessary, because I got time to reflect and just allow myself to be sad. A lot of times on tour, we don’t have time to allow ourselves to be sad, so then those emotions build up into the next match. And I think that those two days, honestly, probably helped me. I really completely changed my mentality.”

That wasn’t all she changed, and just look at Gauff now: Ranked No. 6, the 19-year-old from Florida must be counted among the leading contenders at Flushing Meadows for the sort of trophy she has set her sights on, and appeared destined to hold, for quite some time.

“Obviously the goal is to win a Slam,” said Gauff, the runner-up to Iga Swiatek at last year’s French Open, “but I’m not going to be (thinking), ‘OK, well, I’m supposed to be the U.S. Open champion.’ That’s not the mindset that I have. And when people put that on me, I have no choice but to accept it and just know that it comes from the heart.”

With a new coaching arrangement, reworked footwork on her forehand and a commitment to aggression early in points, Gauff is playing as well as anyone. She has won 11 of 12 matches and her two biggest titles — in Washington and Cincinnati, both on hard courts — since that defeat against 2020 Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin at Wimbledon. One of the recent victories came over 2022 U.S. Open champion Swiatek, who claimed all 14 previous sets they played.

“Wimbledon was tough for all of us to digest,” said Pere Riba, Gauff’s full-time coach since last month, alongside temporary consultant Brad Gilbert. “But we talked about things she can improve. And Coco was open to that.”

It was at Wimbledon in 2019 that Gauff became someone everyone noticed. Just 15, she was the youngest qualifier in tournament history, then beat Venus Williams while reaching the main event's fourth round.

The next two majors were also big deals: Gauff got to the third round at the U.S. Open before losing to defending champion Naomi Osaka, then eliminated Osaka — again the reigning champ — at the 2020 Australian Open.

Clearly, Gauff was no fluke. Clearly, she was a fast learner.

“Coco is willing to make changes. She is really humble and a really hard worker. It was clear she needed to take steps forward in her game,” said Riba, who emphasized improving the way Gauff sets up to hit forehands, while Gilbert’s advice included the importance of not rushing between points. “So we got to work. We created a plan. And day by day, we followed it.”

As Riba noted, there was a fantastic foundation: a serve, backhand and ability to defend that are among the best in the game.

Gauff’s forehand has become more reliable, and opponents can no longer assume it’s going to falter. Her willingness to attack early in points is far more prevalent than before. Her confidence is back.

“She really makes you have to win the match,” said Jessica Pegula, the 28-year-old American who is Gauff’s doubles partner and the only player to beat her in singles over the past seven weeks. “She’s not going to give you a lot of free points.”

Gauff’s longest U.S. Open stay came a year ago, when she made it to the quarterfinals. The attention from the home fans will be greater, as will the hope — theirs and hers — for an appearance in Arthur Ashe Stadium on the tournament’s closing weekend.

“I do think that sometimes people think that it can happen like this,” Gauff said, snapping with her right hand, “but people forget that there’s 1,000 other players in the field working ... as hard as they can, every day. So it’s not magic. It’s not going to happen like that.”

No. Not like that. But two days in a hotel room in July might pay dividends in September.


Howard Fendrich has been the AP's tennis writer since 2002.


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