Since she exploded onto the scene as a 15-year-old qualifier knocking out Venus Williams en route to the Wimbledon fourth round three years ago, the narrative surrounding Coco Gauff has been heavily linked to her age.
Every Gauff stat began with “the youngest since” or “the youngest to”, as the American phenom confounded the tennis world with her early-career achievements.
Now 18 years old and ranked 16 in the world, Gauff’s age is becoming less of a talking point, especially considering the world No.1, Iga Swiatek, is only 20.
“It definitely takes the pressure off,” Gauff told Eurosport on the sidelines of the Madrid Open this week.
“I feel like my age is a big thing that people were talking about but I think for me, we’re all on the court, we’re all going to the same lines, the same balls, the same everything.
“Age, yes, does play a factor a little bit with experience or maybe physically, but Iga being No.1 definitely gives a little extra motivation knowing that she can accomplish it at such a young age in the sport, and maybe you think that you can do it too.”
‘HER MATURITY LEVEL IS OFF THE CHARTS’
The irony is that when you’re actually speaking to Gauff, the last thing you will think about is her age. The Floridian is well-versed and mature beyond her years.
During the Middle East swing earlier this season, the 28-year-old Jessica Pegula played doubles with Gauff and recalls being shocked when hearing her compatriot was only 17 at the time.
“How is she so young? I feel like she’s been around for so long too and it’s just crazy,” Pegula told Eurosport in Dubai.
“It’s amazing what she’s doing, she moves so well and her athletic ability… I’ve always appreciated that she’s super mature off the court too.
“She seems so down-to-earth, I just feel like, I don’t know if it was her family or her or what, but just her maturity level is definitely off the charts and her professionalism at such a young age is really surprising but great to see.”
A HEALTHY PERSPECTIVE
The Gauffs are indeed a popular and well-respected bunch on tour. Gauff’s mother Candi does not travel with her full-time but attends some tournaments, while Corey her father has coached his daughter her whole life. Both parents have instilled in her a healthy perspective towards the sport – one that is rare to find in a professional athlete at such a young age.
With the tennis tour going through turbulent times over the past couple of years; from dealing with a pandemic, to the controversial disappearance of Peng Shuai, and now a reckoning with Russia’s war on Ukraine, Gauff and her fellow players are getting a constant reminder that there is more to life than their sport. For Gauff, it is a realisation she has had her whole life.
“I think you just have to remind yourself that it’s just a tennis match and there are people going through much worse things in the world than losing a tennis match,” she said.
“I just look at it as something that I do and I love but it’s not my life entirely. I’m still going to be here if tennis were not to exist tomorrow, I’ll still be here and there’s many more things to worry about in the world than just a tennis match.
“Obviously as an athlete it means a lot; I put everything into this sport. But I think also you have to remind yourself that it is just a sport and there’s much more important issues going and it’s important that we address them too.”
NO SHORTCUTS TO SUCCESS
Gauff’s approach does not mean she doesn’t have huge goals in tennis, and that she isn’t working hard to try and reach them. She has long stated she wishes to be the “greatest of all time”, and her father understands she probably wished she had accomplished more by now.
“She keeps building and building. But sometimes you expect a lot and you don’t get it,” Corey told me in an interview at the Caja Magica.
“Of course in her mind she probably would have won 10 Grand Slams by now. I never talk her off of big, bold goals but at the same time it’s going to happen when you’re ready and I think the way we’re going about it is that when you’re ready you’ll be able to stay, and you’ll be able to keep producing week after week.
“To me that’s the path we’ve always wanted to take: Build the player, build the confidence, and then the results will start to consistently happen all the time.”
Corey added: “We’re not trying to take shortcuts to win right away but just trying to build long-term. So I’m pretty happy with how she’s developing.”
The Gauff camp has a new addition with them this week in Madrid in the form of Argentine Diego Moyano – former coach of Kevin Anderson and ex-USTA Lead National Coach – who has joined the coaching staff, bringing in a wealth of experience and a fresh pair of eyes.
“We’ve got a good team in place for working on the right things and really trying to build her game for the long-term,” added Corey.
“We’re not trying to take shortcuts to win right away but just trying to build long-term. So I’m pretty happy with how she’s developing.”
Although she has made steady progress and cracked the top 15 for the first time last month, Gauff admits she struggled with confidence recently and is building it back up.
“I felt like I was listening too much to outside noise,” she confessed.
“People were saying certain things like, ‘Oh she’s going to win all the Grand Slams’, and stuff that’s pretty much close to impossible but in your head you just think that you’re disappointing people, but I think I just have to continue to remind myself that I do this for me and me only and everyone else can enjoy it or not enjoy it.”
A lot of that pressure comes from social media, which Gauff often enjoys but is trying to find the balance between using it for fun, and taking it too seriously.
“You don’t want to completely shut yourself off,” she explains.
“For me, I lessen my time on social media but I also do enjoy social media. So you have to find the right balance of listening to what people have to say – because I do care what people say about me – but also knowing when to block it out.”
Gauff’s father believes she is in the process of finding her identity on court, and how she likes to play, rather than forcing a style of game on her. He doesn’t want to attach a label to her just yet, but he sees her as an aggressive baseliner that can finish points up at the net.
“Now you’ve got to do all those tactics to make sure you arrive at the net the right way and not just running up there and hoping somebody hits the ball to you,” he added.
PUTTING IN THE WORK
Corey is trying to adopt a mentality within the team where tournaments are not the ultimate destination, but just a stop along the way. He is aware his daughter is rebuilding her confidence and tries to inject positivity within the team.
“I think she’s got a perfect child syndrome, and when you have a perfect child syndrome, they only focus on things that didn’t go perfectly well,” he says.
“While that attitude drives you to be very good, it can gnaw at you when things are not going your way.
“So I said, ‘Look, in anything that you do in life, no matter who it is, you build confidence from repetition of doing it the right way’.
“So I said, ‘If you want more, Coco, you’ve got to do more. If you want to be great, you’ve got to do what great people do’.
“So little things that we’ve added to the game and to the practices have really made a difference. Not looking at a tournament as the destination but as more of along the way.”
After her opening round win in Madrid last Thursday – a 6-0, 6-2 one-hour effort against qualifier Anna Karolina Schmiedlova – Gauff hit the practice court for a short while with her dad and Moyano to work on a few things before fulfilling her press duties.
“That’s winning behaviour, that’s winning attitude,” added Corey.
Gauff had a breakthrough clay season last year, winning a second career title in Parma, making the semis in Rome and reaching a maiden Grand Slam quarter-final on the terre battue of Roland Garros.
She’s trying to keep things simple in her approach to this clay season.
“The biggest goal is to win the Grand Slam but other than that I think just continuing to enjoy and just try to be confident on the court,” said Gauff, who fell to Simona Halep in the Madrid last-16 stage on Monday.
“I think in the past I lost a little bit of my confidence so I think now I’m just trying to build it back up and just really remember that it is just a match at the end of the day and the world isn’t going to crash.”
COCO THE OCTOPUS
Had Gauff won her match against Halep on Monday, she would have gone on to face familiar foe, Tunisian Ons Jabeur, in the Madrid quarter-finals.
The pair have faced off four times before and are frequent practice partners.
Jabeur describes Gauff as “an octopus”, and marvels at the teenager’s ability to retrieve shots from all corners of the court.
“You think you won the point but no, you didn’t win the point. And that’s what’s impressive about Coco, she doesn’t give up, she’s always there, you can expect her to come back anytime. You can expect her to bring a lob from I don’t know how she jumps, it’s really impressive at that young age,” said world No. 10 Jabeur.
“I felt like people put a lot of pressure on her, but she’s been handling it well. She’s going to end up winning a Grand Slam for sure.
“She’s been here a long time so people tend to forget that she’s really still young. And I hope they don’t put as much pressure on her as before. Just give her time and she’ll win a lot of titles, a lot of matches. Sometimes, because she’s very mature as a player, as a person, I kind of forget, it’s like speaking to someone who’s the same age as me.”
Jabeur paid tribute to Gauff’s parents, noting how they buck the trend of the pushy tennis parents so often associated with the sport.
“Her father is amazing, it’s a different style as a father (in tennis), I feel like he doesn’t put a lot of pressure on her and that’s what I love about her and even her mom, she’s very nice. They’re very cool parents, and that’s very important for Coco,” said Jabeur.