PARIS — It’s easy to be in a rush when you reach the fourth round of Wimbledon at the age of 15 and beat one of your idols, Venus Williams, in your opening game. It’s easy to be in a rush when the sponsors and platform are already in place and you’ve heard from experts and the voice in your own head that you have what it takes to be a champion.
But tennis is a trickier game than most: a mix of the physical, the technical and the psychological with so much time to think between points and serves and so many tournaments, time changes and losses to contend with.
Coco Gauff, even though she’s only 18, had to be more patient than planned. But the young American’s potential and performance under pressure are beginning to level out. On Saturday at the French Open, she will face number 1 Iga Swiatek for the title and coupe Suzanne Lenglen in her first Grand Slam singles final.
“It’s a fine line to believe in yourself and almost to overwhelm yourself,” said Gauff on Thursday after her 6: 3, 6: 1 semi-final victory against Martina Trevisan and, as always, sounded a little older than her years.
Gauff, the youngest singles Grand Slam finalist since Maria Sharapova won Wimbledon in 2004 at the age of 17, compared her expectations to those she had a season ago when she reached the quarterfinals of the French Open. Unable to handle the pressure and critical points, she threw her racquet across the sand in frustration while losing to unseeded eventual champion Barbora Krejcikova.
“In that moment, I wanted it too badly,” she said. “But now I definitely want it. Yes, who wouldn’t? But it won’t be the end of the world either if it doesn’t happen for me.”
The odds, make no mistake, are still well against them. Gauff faces the toughest task in women’s tennis.
Swiatek, 21, extended her winning streak to 34 games in Thursday’s first semifinal by beating 20th-seeded Daria Kasatkina 6-2, 6-1 in just over an hour.
That result and breakneck pace were typical of Swiatek, the strong and increasingly imposing Polish star. She hasn’t lost a match since February, beating Gauff in straight sets in the previous two matches: 7-6(3), 6-3 on red clay in last year’s Italian Open semifinals and 6-4. 3, 6-1, on a hard court in the round of 16 at this year’s Miami Open in March.
“On paper, she definitely comes into play as a favourite,” said Gauff. “But I think if I go in I’ll just play freely and play my best tennis. I think anything can happen in a Grand Slam final.”
Gauff’s ability to build points with her speed and defensive skills could certainly force Swiatek to make more mistakes than usual. Under the tutelage of Diego Moyano, the veteran coach who joined her team in April, Gauff has improved her tactics according to her father, Corey Gauff, who has been her head coach since childhood.
“Playing on your strengths means not rushing all the time,” Corey Gauff said in an interview Thursday night. He added: “He can let her know how he feels on the other side of the net when she does something. He tries to get her to understand why she’s making the decision and the implications. And he was pretty effective compared to Dad. We fathers tend to command and control and that doesn’t always work.”
But sound remains Swiatek’s favorite canvas. She won the French Open in 2020 at the age of 19. Gauff lost to Trevisan in the second round of that tournament and looked increasingly distraught as her double fault count mounted. She finished with 19. On Thursday she finished with just two, her lowest total this Roland Garros.
“She’s learning to deal with emotions and understanding that double faults are part of the game and you don’t have to overreact,” Corey Gauff said.
Despite being just 4-3 on clay ahead of Roland Garros this year, Coco Gauff hasn’t lost a set in six games. “I’ll be honest,” she said. “This year I didn’t have the best results in this matter. So that was not to be expected at all.”
Gauff graduated from year-round online high school earlier this spring and celebrated her success with a photo taken in front of the Eiffel Tower ahead of the French Open. Corey Gauff thinks this helped her fly higher in Paris.
“That release when you finish high school or college is real,” he said. “She always had work to do and you always have that in the back of your mind. I have a feeling this is the first tournament she’s played without homework.”
But she still follows current events, and on Thursday, after defeating Trevisan, she walked across the red sands to the now-customary TV camera glass signing and decided, quite spontaneously, she explained, to make a statement about last month’s primary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 students and two teachers were killed.
“Peace. No more gun violence,” Gauff wrote, drawing a heart next to her first name.
“That was just a message for people at home and for people around the world,” she said, adding, “Hopefully it gets into the minds of people in office to hopefully change things.”
Gauff said she’s been influenced by athletes like former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and fellow tennis star Naomi Osaka, who have spoken out openly on social and cultural issues. But Gauff’s family made it clear to her early on that she could have an impact far beyond the court.
“My dad told me I could change the world with my racquet,” she said. “He didn’t mean it like he was just playing tennis. He meant to comment on such subjects. The first thing my dad said to me after I walked off was, ‘I’m proud of you and I love what you wrote on camera.'”
Corey Gauff said he first told his daughter about the influence she could have when she was 6 or 7 years old.
“I’m glad she’s aware of what’s going on around her,” he said. “She has a brother who is 8 years old and is in elementary school. It’s not hard to get home. I am glad that she is aware of this and is bringing the attention and empathy to it. She doesn’t just hit the tennis ball. She is a citizen of the world.”
Still, tennis is certainly a focus at Roland Garros. Gauff, who is seeded at No. 18, is guaranteed to rise to a career high at No. 13 and could rise to No. 8 if she defeats Swiatek. She’s not just aiming for the singles title. She and her partner Jessica Pegula are in the semifinals of women’s doubles and meet their American compatriots Taylor Townsend and Madison Keys on Friday.
Gauff’s younger brothers – 8-year-old Cameron and 14-year-old Codey – are due to arrive in Paris on Friday morning after traveling from the family home in Delray Beach, Fla.
“They come to the singles final and hopefully also to the doubles final,” said Corey Gauff.
Cameron’s birthday is Sunday.
“He comes to Paris as an 8-year-old and leaves as a 9-year-old,” said Corey Gauff, laughing.
Cameron’s big sister has a chance to walk away as a Grand Slam champion.