Coco Gauff wins a title. And then she wins another.
By Christopher Clarey
It had been a year and a half since Coco Gauff won a tennis title. On Saturday, she won two in only a few hours.
Gauff, the 17-year-old from Delray Beach, Florida, secured the singles title first: defeating Wang Qiang, 6-1, 6-3, with a poised and powerful performance at the WTA Tour’s Emilia-Romagna Open in Parma, Italy.
After a trophy ceremony and a short rest, Gauff returned to center court with her doubles partner Caty McNally and won that title, too, rebounding from a slow start to defeat Darija Jurak and Andreja Klepac, 6-3, 6-2.
“Two titles in one day, not bad,” Gauff said as she thanked her father and coach, Corey, and the rest of her team. Her victories came just over a week before the start of the French Open in Paris.
The education of Gauff as a tennis player continues, and she has been a star student on Europe’s red clay so far this spring. After defeating Maria Sakkari and Aryna Sabalenka earlier this month to reach the semifinals of the Italian Open in Rome, Gauff traveled north to Parma to play in a new WTA 250 event where Serena Williams, a late wild-card entry, was the main attraction.
But Williams, 39, lost to Katerina Siniakova in the second round and showed that she is still struggling to find her fitness and her form. Gauff, meanwhile, won five straight matches to collect her second WTA singles title.
The first came indoors in Linz, Austria, in October 2019 when she was still 15 and won a tough three-set final against Jelena Ostapenko.
“I feel like in Linz, I was really nervous closing the match, and I hadn’t been in that moment before,” she said when asked to compare her emotions after each victory. “Linz was definitely more a sigh of relief, because I think I was up in that third set and lost a couple of games before I was able to close it out. Whereas here, I said I was just going to go for it and trust myself and trust my decisions, and that’s why I felt like here it felt more like it was meant to be and not relief.”
Gauff will be ranked 25th on Monday, a new career high. That guarantees her a seeding for the first time in a Grand Slam tournament when the French Open begins May 30.
“I feel really good about going into the French, and I hope I can continue to build and get better,” said Gauff, who beat McNally to win the French Open girls championship in 2018. “I have a week and a day to get ready. I feel like I’m hitting good, moving good. My body feels good, my mentality. Emotionally I feel good, so I think it will be a good tournament for me.”
Gauff did not have to deal with the WTA elite this week in Parma. She faced no players ranked in the world’s top 30 and no former major champions. Her highest-ranked opponent was No. 40 Amanda Anisimova, a powerful but erratic American whom Gauff defeated, 6-3, 6-3, in the quarterfinals before beating Siniakova in three sets and China’s Wang in a hurry.
Wang, 29, had thrived in long rallies throughout the week, defeating Petra Martic and Sloane Stephens in tight matches. But she struggled from the start to control the flow of play against the fast and consistent Gauff.
“She’s a very good player now, and she can be a really great player,” Wang said.
That remains the consensus on Gauff. She became a star in a hurry by reaching the fourth round of Wimbledon in 2019 in her first Grand Slam tournament. But she has not rocketed quickly to the very top like former prodigies Monica Seles and Martina Hingis.
The pandemic has certainly been a factor. Gauff did not play a tournament for more than six months in 2020, and then lost in the first round of the U.S. Open and the second round of the rescheduled French Open when she did return.
Although her two-handed backhand and court coverage remain her strengths, her serve and forehand have been question marks. She has shored up the forehand and has been increasingly effective pouncing on short balls and hitting winners with that stroke. But double faults have been a recurring issue. Last month, she had 13 in a straight-set loss to Ons Jabeur in the quarterfinals of an event in Charleston, South Carolina, and 12 more in a three-set defeat to Karolina Pliskova in the first round of the Mutua Madrid Open.
Those are big, disquieting numbers. The serving yips can be daunting to overcome, particularly in tight matches with Grand Slam titles on the line. But Gauff, with less at stake, served well through the pressure in Rome and Parma.
Against Wang, she hit six double faults, but none came at critical junctures, and she did not lose a game on her serve.
“That feels good,” she said. “The serve is something I’ve been working on a lot, and I can still improve on it.”
Pat Cash, the former Wimbledon champion who is coaching Wang, agreed that Gauff’s serve needs work — “Sometimes she gets a bit too much spin on it,” he said — but after sitting courtside in Parma on Saturday, he said he liked her chances of playing well in Paris.
“I don’t think she’s going to be that far off at the French,” Cash said. “I think Coco can get frustrated with the ball coming back time and time again. She overhits at times, and that’s what we were hoping she would do today. We were hoping to frustrate her, but she hit God knows how many lines, baselines and sidelines, with power.
“I was very impressed with her speed, and she’s a strong girl. She was a pretty skinny little thing a couple years ago, but she’s very strong on the stretch. That’s where it really counts.”
Cash continued, “When she is pushed wide, instead of just floating the ball back, she can get some heat on it, and that’s crucial. A lot of the girls are not strong enough to do that. I was very impressed how Coco ran down a lot of balls and got them back with speed and depth. It’s like Rafa. He’s in trouble, and all the sudden he’s out of trouble.”
For a player, any day someone draws a comparison to Nadal on clay is a good day. So is any day that you leave a tournament with two champion’s trophies after a long wait.