It’s easy to forget Coco Gauff is still a teenager. In reality, it’s almost a full 12 months until she hits her twenties, yet it already feels like she’s a veteran on the tour.
Cori, or ‘Coco’, as she is widely known, began her ITF junior career at just 13 years old, and became the youngest US Open junior finalist not long after. Indeed, it was just her fourth event. Coco has gone on to enter the record books as the ‘youngest’ in a number of categories.
At 15, Coco made her WTA debut at Miami, winning her first match against fellow American, Caty McNally. Just a few months later, she became the youngest player to qualify for Wimbledon, before announcing herself to the world, with a straight sets win over Venus Williams in the first round. She stormed all the way through to the fourth round, before eventually going down to Simona Halep.
But in the space of a fortnight, her life changed forever. There’s been no more ITF events since then. This has meant, from the age of 15, Gauff has been a staple on the WTA tour.
She has now spent over 4 years, criss-crossing the globe as a major player inside the tennis circus. For most teenagers, there is high school to navigate, proms to attend, parties with school friends all summer long. But for Coco, a huge part of her life has already been dedicated to tennis.
She is currently entrenched within the top ten in both singles and doubles, has won 3 singles titles, reached the final of the French Open, and the quarter finals of the US Open. However, as impressive as these achievements are, Gauff has severely struggled against the top ten players in the WTA, with a less than desirable win-loss record.
When I say ‘less than desirable’, I mean, ‘quite horrendous for a player with major title aspirations’.
Let me break this down…
Gauff’s career win percentage against top ten players (at the time of the encounter) is just 29%. For context, here are the other current top ten player records (at the start of the Miami event):
Swiatek – 69%
But it gets worse….
You have to go all the way down to number 27 in the world, China’s Shuai Zhang, to find a player with an inferior win percentage (28%). For someone with as much talent as Coco, this is the biggest indictment on her game.
But is it fair to count her whole career, when she herself only really broke into the top 10 last year? You would expect that if we just take the last 52 weeks, the stats would be more kind to her.
Unfortunately not. If we look at the last 12 months, her record is even worse, at 2 wins/10 losses. Out of the top 50 WTA players, there are only 6 with worse records against top ten players. It is a big concern for her.
By purely viewing her as a nineteen year old, it’s easy to get sucked into believing she has all the time in the world. Surely we will see the best of Gauff in the next 5-10 years. For what it’s worth, I hope we do. From all accounts, she is a lovely young woman, who carries herself beautifully, both on, and off the court, and is a wonderful ambassador for the sport.
However, we all know the window in tennis can be short. New players emerge quickly, and women’s tennis is littered with players who began their career in their early to mid-teens, only to burn out by their mid to late twenties. This may be a cautionary tale that Coco doesn’t have as much time as we all hope.
So why does Gauff consistently takes care of business against lower ranked players, yet find it so challenging against the top players? There are probably a few reasons, but right now, at a technical level, it appears the forehand side is the biggest issue.
Currently, Coco’s forehand is erratic. While her backhand is often praised for its consistency and power, her forehand has been known to break down under pressure. Specifically, her grip on the forehand side has been criticized for being too western, which can lead to inconsistency and errors.
There are times when her contact point is all over the place within the same game, or even the same point. With the western grip, it becomes difficult to combat the hard hitting of the top ladies, who often hit flat and deep. Coco should have more success on the high bouncing, slower clay courts, and probably not co-incidentally, that is where her best Slam result has
Pam Shriver has commented on Gauff’s forehand... “It’s not easy to overcome…Because everyone you play is trying to break down that side. I have no doubt that they’re (Coco’s team) doing everything they can to get that solved.
I just think Coco has to ratchet down the expectations, take it one day at a time and continue to be the professional she is. “
Mary Joe Fernandez has also weighed in on the situation… “Her serve is big. I mean when you see it live she’s got a big first serve. So if she figures out how to manage and improve the forehand, all of a sudden it becomes a weapon where she serves and she can actually run around and attack with that side. It becomes a game changer."
The issue with tennis, is that there are just not many breaks in the season where a player can work on their technique for any length of time. The off season just isn’t long enough. Personally, I don’t think it would be a bad decision to take an extended break from competition at the end of the year.
It turns out, Mary Jo is of the same opinion… "I guess for me I feel like she’s still young enough. I feel like she’s still so young that taking six months off, eight months off wouldn’t be the end of the world for her."
Additionally, her serve has been another area of concern. Against top 10 players, for the stat of ‘service points won’, Gauff is ranked 45th out of the top 50, at 52.4%. While the serve can generate plenty of power, and her ‘first serve in’ stat is reasonable, the lack of variety allows her rivals to win far too many points on her service games. That number increases to 59.5% vs all opponents, clearly showing the best players in the world are finding a way to attack her serve.
Flip that around to her return games, and she’s just not putting enough pressure on opponents serve, winning around 37% of return points against top 10 players. Again, that increases to 45% vs all opponents, which is the figure she needs to aim for in the big matches, against the best players.
In my opinion, the serve is an easier fix than the forehand, and can be worked on during the season, as it is the sole stroke in tennis you have full control of. But as mentioned previously, fixing the forehand may take a little longer. If Coco is willing to sacrifice an Australian Open for example, she could pull up stumps on the season after the US Open, before making a return this time next year, for the beginning of the clay season.
This would give her around 6 months to work on her weaknesses, take a mental break from competitive tennis, allow her to spend some time with family and friends, and come back refreshed for a tilt at some major silverware.
There is so much to like about the way Coco goes about her business, that I think most of us in tennis would love to see her reach the pinnacle. Naomi Osaka once praised Gauff's mental toughness and fighting spirit, saying "I think she's one of the most mentally strong players out there. She's so young but she's already been through so much and she handles it all with such grace."
If Gauff wants to be remembered as a multiple Slam winner, it might be well worth her taking some time off, and taking a step back, in order to take giant strides forward.