Cori “Coco” Gauff is not your average American teenager. Or is she?
The 19-year-old copes with stress and pressure situations in a match by thinking of Beyonce, and if she spots Justin Bieber in the crowd, it isn’t the day any opponent can get through her.
She’s a waterbender like Katara from the Avatar series, can shapeshift herself according to what her opponent has on offer. Case in point, Aryna Sabalenka, the world number one Gauff overcame to win her first grand slam and that too in front of home audience.
New York. The ‘concrete jungle’ where her dreams began almost a decade ago and has shaped up remarkably well.
The newly crowned US Open champion picked up the tennis racquet when she was six. She developed as an aggressive player with a big serve just like her idols, the Williams sisters.
Clarity of thought
However, on Saturday, it wasn’t the aggressive Gauff that won at the Flushing Meadows, but someone who was sure of her defence and has a clarity of what is to be done.
“I was just trying to stay in the match. I knew she (Sabalenka) was going to go out there swinging, and I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to win this match the way I like to play,” Gauff said in the post-match press conference.
“I don’t like to play the way that I played today. Running around the court, it’s fun, but, you know, it’s not as fun as hitting winners,” she added.
This clarity has come through experience, of losing a French Open final (in 2022), of getting knocked out of first round in Wimbledon, and through many tough defeats she has suffered ever since she began playing professionally in 2018, aged 14.
For her though, things changed when she saw Iga Swiatek lifting the Roland Garros trophy last year. “Honestly, the French Open moment, I watched Iga lift up that trophy, and I watched her the whole time. I said, I’m not going to take my eyes off her, because I want to feel what that felt like for her,” she said.
Even though she hasn’t even crossed 20, playing the sport and having the experience has made her mature quite early where she doesn’t let the outside voices get through her.
“I went into this match (final) like it was any other match. I honestly wasn’t nervous going in. She was just playing great tennis, and I knew today was going to be one of those problem-solving tough matches because she’s a tough opponent.”
Style of play
The teenager loves to play on hard courts. She has developed her game playing on these surfaces and knows what to expect. Having played a lot of doubles has made her equipped to all aspects of court so even when she approaches the net, Gauff knows how to finish the point.
In the final though, since she was kept on backfoot for most part of the match, she only attempted 10 net points, and won 7. Overall in the tournament, she approached the net 15% of the time, according to the US Open data, suggesting her attacking style of play.
Both her forehand as well as her double-handed backhand generate enough power to go for the winners from either of them.
There’s a lot of awareness regarding her opponent. Against Muchova, Gauff made sure to keep the rally going trusting her young legs would outlast the Czechs.
“At that point when you’re like 20 shots in in the rally it’s tough to go for a winner sometimes because you’re not as fresh on energy and everything as before, and I knew that I could outlast that rally. I knew I had the legs and the lungs to outlast her in the rally,” she explained after her semifinal win.
“I knew that next match point, if I were to win, she was definitely going to go for a winner or miss. That’s what happened.” Muchova ended up with 36 unforced errors while Gauff made 25.
Waiting for her opponent to make a mistake was a tactic that worked against Sabalenka as well. She said that while it is always best to avoid hitting towards baseline, but against the Belarusian, it was best to go long than short.
“I told myself, A, just aim for the baseline, because before I was aiming for slightly inside the baseline, which is what I normally do, because you don’t want to aim for the baseline, but clearly that wasn’t enough.”
Sabalenka hit 46 unforced errors; Gauff 19.
Having learned from her idols – Serena and Venus – for Gauff it is the beginning of something special. A legacy she has to continue.
“Obviously Serena and Venus, words can’t describe what they meant to me. I hope that I’m a continued of a legacy. I hope another girl can see this and believe they can do it and hopefully their name can be on this trophy too,” Gauff said.
While these are big boots to fill, the teenager wants to have fun playing just as the eight-year-old Gauff was having when she made it to Arthur Ashe Stadium during the kids’ day.
A decade later, with all the pressure of expectations aside, she continues her teenage dream and New York is the city where the dreams come true, as Beyonce said.
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