Coco Gauff brought a new coaching team to the Mubadala Citi DC Open, and won an emotional opener over old friend Hailey Baptiste. Now she’ll face a test from Belinda Bencic
Coco Gauff looked a little somber through much of her match with fellow American Hayley Baptiste at the Mubadala Citi DC Open last Wednesday. Her face was, as always, a mask of determination, but this time it was accompanied by a half-frown as she went about her business. Was the 19-year-old, who has had something of a frustrating season by her Top 10 standards, less than enthusiastic about starting the second half of her year? Or was this perennial crowd favorite thrown off by the fans, who were clearly behind the D.C. native Baptiste?
Not exactly. The reason for Gauff's frown became clear the second the match was over, and she cracked a smile as she walked to the net to wrap her opponent in a hug. It obviously wasn't easy for her to face Baptiste, an old friend from junior days.
"Known each other since we were 10 years old," Gauff told Rennae Stubbs in a post-match interview. Gauff and Baptiste, 21, had been roommates at junior camps over the years, but this was the first time they had played an official match.
Still, there was more than just friendship on Gauff's mind.
"It makes me a little bit emotional, playing Hailey," she said, "because growing up there weren't too many Black women in juniors playing. And for us to be both here on tour playing really means a lot. We had to deal with a lot a lot of crap that you guys don't know about, and for us to be here on tour, it really does mean a lot, and it reminds me of those big dreams we had as kids."
She said she was happy to see the faces of young girls in the crowd, and the chance to inspire another generation of U.S. players will likely always serve as motivation for her.
Gauff, it seems, needed a little inspiration of her own this summer. When she won her first tournament of 2023, back in January in Auckland, it looked as if bigger titles, maybe even Grand Slam titles, would follow this year. Instead of breaking through, though, her results have stagnated. She hasn't reached a final since, and she suffered her most disappointing result at Wimbledon, where she lost to a sub-100-ranked Sofia Kenin in the first round. Gauff has responded by hiring a new coaching team, led by Pere Riba of Spain and buttressed by Brad Gilbert.
"I definitely do feel like I'm in a rebuilding period," Gauff says.
"I feel like I have the foundation in my game," she continued, extending the metaphor. "Now it's building around that, it's building the house...I have the land and I need to build the house on top of it, make it as extravagant and big and pretty as possible."
What, ideally, will that house look like?
Gauff says she's hoping Gilbert, former coach of Andre Agassi, among others, can help her perform better on bigger stages. So far this year, she has just one Top 10 win, and she lost in the fourth round and the quarters in Melbourne and Paris.
"I think having someone with a little bit more experience will help me for the pressure moments, the semifinals, finals, quarterfinals," she said. "Those moments that I still think I need to get better at."
She also says she wants to be a little less of a perfectionist, and a little less hard on herself when she isn't perfect. Choosing the right shot, even if you miss it, is what matters.
"I'm trying to be more gracious when it comes to misses and mistakes, [as long as] it's the right decision," Gauff says. "I'm trying to make sure my first instincts are always right decision, whether I make the ball or not."
Gauff is just 19, but watching her play Baptiste, I found myself wondering if she needs to update her game for the way it's being played today on the women's tour. The top players, Iga Swiatek and Aryna Sabalenka in particular, look to dominate with their forehands, and try to run around and hit as many as possible. Baptiste does the same thing. Gauff, by contrast, plays a steadier, more backhand-centric game; she doesn't have the killer forehand that can reliably end points. It's not a coincidence that she hasn't won a set against Swiatek or Sabalenka this season.
It won't be easy for Gauff to retool her forehand at this point; 19 is already late for major technical changes. But that doesn't mean she can't use it, and all of her shots, more aggressively and effectively.
Working with and playing for a famous coach like Gilbert may help her raise her expectations for herself. She could probably use them on Friday, when she'll face 15th-ranked Belinda Bencic, who is 1-0 against Coco.
"I want people to call me out on my flaws," Gauff says. "That's the biggest thing in life, surrounding yourself with people that you trust. I'm not saying they're going to be right all the time, but you have to be able to hear them out."
Let the rebuilding begin. US tennis needs as much inspiration from Coco Gauff as it can get. –Tennis.com