Coco Gauff enters the field midway through the day. The stadium is half full, if that’s the case.
So far it mostly takes care of its core business in just over an hour. A couple of TV interviews follow his warm-up. Not much more. Sometimes there are only two or three journalists at his press conferences. In the evening, as she wanders the streets of Melbourne on her way to dinner, she is barely noticed, regardless of the fact that she is wearing a baseball hat and sunglasses.
“Definitely more relaxation,” Gauff said the other day about his experience at this tournament compared to the last Grand Slam he played, and won, at the US Open in New York in September.
Remember those nights when Gauff would kick off the evening sessions with thrilling, heart-stopping victories? Three of his first four matches ended in three sets. Twice he lost the first set. The crowd of nearly 24,000 at Arthur Ashe Stadium would erupt almost every time he won a point and carry it to victory.
So, whatever bold name in tennis was conducting the on-court interview would hand over the microphone and let Gauff rile the crowd with his version of the “stay tuned for Novak Djokovic” message. Hundreds of players were registered for the tournament. She owned it from start to finish, the 19-year-old rookie showing up like never before, the celebrities sitting courtside at her games. Jimmy Butler. The Obamas. His name is on almost everyone’s lips at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
Four months later, life couldn’t be more different for Gauff in Melbourne, and not in the way you might predict. Sure, it’s on some billboards. It’s been like this for four years now, ever since he achieved success at Wimbledon when he was just 15 years old.
His game hasn’t changed much. Last month he modified his serve slightly with the help of Andy Roddick, shortening the swing slightly and throwing the ball from a higher position, although it’s barely noticeable. “Maybe it’s shortened a little,” said Pam Shriver, who has watched Gauff since he was a junior. “But there’s not much difference.”
The big change is that, although he is one of the sport’s biggest stars, Gauff is reaching the quarterfinals virtually under the radar, despite not dropping a set and barely allowing his opponents to be competitive.
“She’s young but she has a lot of experience because she’s been around for so long,” said Marta Kostyuk of Ukraine, who has the daunting task of facing her in the last eight on Tuesday.
She replaced her neon yellow, tennis ball-colored dress with a shade that more closely resembles the dull yellow of a traffic light. There aren’t hordes of Gen-Z girls following her around and begging for selfies. Her doubles partner, Jessica Pegula, withdrew from that competition, so she doesn’t fill field courts and smaller venues on her singles-free days.
Her matches, scheduled for prime time in the United States, are finishing so quickly, with so little energy expended, that she is doing cardio workouts or training sessions after they’re done. With so little tension during games, there’s almost no back and forth with her coach, Brad Gilbert, which is quite a miracle given that, well, let’s just say it takes a lot to keep Gilbert quiet.
Then come media commitments and then, by mid-afternoon, Gauff tries to figure out how to fill the rest of the day.
“Go to the movies, I don’t know, read a book or something,” she said Sunday, a couple of hours after beating Poland’s Magdalena Frech, 6-1, 6-2 in 63 minutes. “It’s only, like, 3 p.m. “It’s definitely a weird feeling.”
Saw poor things last week. She was planning to see The Iron Claw, a biopic about professional wrestler Kevin Von Erich, on Sunday night.
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There are some very logical explanations for this dynamic.
Gauff has made a huge impact in all other Grand Slam tournaments. She has had the English since her first win against Venus Williams on Center Court at Wimbledon when she was 15. Very dangerous on clay, she was a finalist at the French Open in 2022. The US Open was a happy place for her when she reached the women’s tournament final when she was 13 years old.
As a professional, the Australian Open is the only Grand Slam in which Gauff has never played a major role. This is the first time he has reached the singles quarter-finals and the Australians spend the first part of the tournament obsessing over the afternoons and evenings while they are still competing. He plays while the crowds still come to Melbourne Park, so his games are on American nights, which makes ESPN very happy.
The fans here know her, like her and root for her. There are scattered shouts of “Let’s go Coco,” in the quiet moments between points. She received the final compliment on Sunday when Rod Laver took her place in the front row of the arena named after him shortly before she served at 4-1. She thanked him for coming after, saying it was an honor to play in front of him.
But it’s still not “a thing” here, so to speak, which makes for peaceful days. Not that he’s complaining.
Gauff and her team have always urged her to embrace free time. He turns down dozens of sponsorship offers to minimize his obligations and keep his mind clear. Focus on tennis and the money and opportunities will come.
“Playing for the long term,” reiterated on Sunday his agent, Alessandro Barel Di Sant Albano of Team8, the agency co-launched by Roger Federer.
Gauff took this approach on the field. He pays particular attention to 30-all when his opponent is serving, even if she is already on a break of serve, trying to shorten matches wherever he can, not just for this tournament, but for years to come.
“YOI’m 19 now, but I won’t always be able to recover as quickly physically or mentally,” Gauff said Sunday.
However, being a prodigy can have its pitfalls.
Gauff said she had put enormous pressure on herself to win a Grand Slam as a teenager ever since her Wimbledon success in 2019. Last summer, with less than a year to go, she lost in the first round at Wimbledon to Sofia Kenin, the Australian of 2020. Open champion. There’s no shame in it, but she took it hard.
“It sucked,” Gauff said. But, he added, “the world has not ended. The sun is still shining. I still have my friends and family. I realized that losing isn’t that bad and that I should just focus on the battle and the process and enjoy it. When the third set is 5-5, enjoy that battle instead of thinking, ‘What if I lose?’”
With only one Grand Slam left in 2023, he thought it was time to start planning for 2024. He wanted to bring in a great coach. Gilbert was interested. He joined his team in mid-summer, an “OG,” as she calls him (“original gangster”), with a strange taste in music (Tom Petty) and candy (Jolly Ranchers).
Gilbert helped her focus on her strengths — her backhand, her powerful serve, her unmatched coverage and endurance on the court — rather than her weakness, which was her forehand. She helped her learn to disguise it, giving it more shape and depth, extending points and turning matches into athletics competitions, in which she has excelled since she was a child.
Six weeks later, he had won his first Grand Slam, six months before turning 20.
Now she’s the one who feels like the veteran and the “OG”
“I’m looking at the other girls on tour who are 16 and coming up,” she said Sunday. “Like, they feel so young and I feel so old.”
Then he recovered.
“I know,” he said. “I’m not that old.”
(Top photo: Martin Keep/AFP via Getty Images)