For much of the early stages of her fourth-round tussle on Court Philippe Chatrier, Coco Gauff was fighting an uphill battle. After losing her serve early on, each time she broke back to level the set, she would quickly drop her serve again. Innumerable long, attritional rallies followed against one of the most durable players on the tour, Elise Mertens, and the tightness of the duel was reflected in the tension radiating from Gauff’s mother, Candi, in the stands.
But one of the qualities Gauff can now draw upon is her growing experience. She is in her third season on tour, she has been in some of these positions before and in place of her carefree precociousness of old, she now has the benefit of learning from previous trials.
After those early stages, 18th seed Gauff got away from Mertens. Her guile, defence and the injections of pace on her backhand were too much for the Belgian 31st seed. Gauff secured a 6-4, 6-0 win to reach her second quarter-final in Paris.
Gauff said: “I really am just enjoying the tournament, enjoying life. I’m not thinking about the end result. I’m just enjoying the match ahead of me and whatever happens happens. It’s out of my control. I’m going to give it my best either way.”
In the process, she has established herself as one of the top contenders to reach the final in the wide-open bottom half of the draw. In her four matches so far in Paris, Gauff has not dropped a set and she loves the clay like few players from her part of the world; she won the French Open junior title in 2018 and many of her best results have come on the surface, including a quarter-final last year in Paris.
She is already one of the best athletes and movers on the tour, but on clay she is one of the most difficult players to put the ball past on the surface. “It’s one of my strengths on other surfaces, but I think clay only enhances that. I really enjoy sliding,” Gauff said on Friday. “I think it helps me recover faster after I get to the ball.”
After the intense early months of her career in 2019, the spotlight has shifted to the newest emerging young players. Rather than exploding to the very top of the game, Gauff has made gradual improvements. Along with her speed, her first serve and her defence, she has particularly established herself as an intelligent and resourceful player with variety to her game. Her forehand, still the biggest hole in her game, has also improved and is particularly effective on clay where its heavy topspin, slices and drop shots irritated Mertens throughout.
Having turned 18 in March, Gauff was finally able to put aside the school work that she has been juggling with her tennis since her emergence on the tour as she graduated from high school. While most students do so from their graduation ceremony, Gauff posted her graduation photos from the Eiffel Tower.
“It was honestly very difficult, just because at least in grand slams in particular I get more mentally exhausted than physically,’ said Gauff on juggling schoolwork and life as a top professional tennis player. “Physically, I can play 20 more matches and mentally I’m, like, I’m barely grinding through this.”
As she heads deep into another grand slam in search of her first semi-final, Gauff now has the benefit of doing so with her focus solely on tennis and on learning from her growing bank of experience.
“Whereas last year I feel like I was thinking if I could have got through that quarter-final maybe I could have won the tournament because I saw the other side was opening up, and this time coming in I’m not thinking about it like that,” she said. “I’m thinking, especially if the US Open taught us anything, anybody can win on any day.”
One of those protagonists in New York also moved on. The 17th seed, Leylah Fernandez, outplayed and outcompeted Amanda Anisimova, seeded 27, to win 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 to reach her second grand slam quarter-final in Paris.