The most important thing to be reminded of, as Coco Gauff improbably lost the first set of her French Open quarterfinal, then lost her composure, then lost all chance is that at just 17 years old, she has already done enough to view what happened Wednesday as a disappointment.
That’s pretty remarkable, isn’t it?
Up until this French Open, it’s been all promise and upside for Gauff, a theoretical future in which her considerable talent would one day be refined enough to win Grand Slams. It wasn’t going to be at 15, when she pulled a first-round surprise against Venus Williams at Wimbledon and first landed on the radar of American sports fans. It wasn’t going to be at 16, when Gauff went through a minor sophomore slump as she became a full-time player on the pro tour.
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And until very recently, it didn’t seem at all realistic to expect anything different at 17 because the trajectory she was on seemed slow and steady and still too far away from the top of the sport to think about too much.
Coco Gauff (USA) reacts during her match against Barbora Krejcikova (CZE). (Photo: Susan Mullane, USA TODAY Sports)
But for the first time in her career Wednesday, Gauff arrived at a big match not as a fascinating and fun story but as a real threat. She felt what it was like to have something to lose. And perhaps, after a 7-6, 6-3 defeat to Barbora Krejčíková of the Czech Republic, she has a realistic view of both how close and how far she is to winning Grand Slam titles.
“I’m obviously disappointed I wasn't able to close out the first set, but to be honest, it’s in the past,” Gauff told reporters. “It already happened, and after the match, my hitting partner told me this match will probably make me a champion in the future and I really do believe that.”
Let’s be clear about one thing: Gauff absolutely had a chance to win the tournament. Not only had she played well for the last several weeks on the clay, including her second career title in Parma, Italy, but this French Open was increasingly there for the taking. Whether it was No. 1-ranked Ash Barty retiring early in the tournament with an injury or Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal or other top seeds struggling with their form, the only sure thing seemed to be defending champion Iga Swiatek — who lost her quarterfinal to Maria Sakkari, whom Gauff beat last month at the Italian Open. Sakkari is now the highest-ranked player remaining at No. 18 in a semifinal where none of the four have been this far in a Grand Slam tournament before.
So this was undoubtedly a big opportunity for Gauff — perhaps too big and too soon for someone who should still be a year away from graduating high school and who could have still qualified for the French Open junior draw by age.
Because as locked in as Gauff seemed when she took an early 3-0 lead on Krejcikova, the reality is that she handled adversity in the match uncharacteristically poorly.
If anything has defined Gauff’s career to this point, it’s been her love of the fight when one thing or another has gone wrong with her game. This year alone, Gauff has played 15 matches that have gone to the third set — sometimes because she couldn’t close it out, others because she clawed back in. But with Coco, competitive instincts have never been an issue.
That’s why it was so surprising to see her react to losing the first set against Krejcikova with self-destructive frustration.
You could certainly understand the emotion. Gauff seemed poised to close out the first set at 5-3, had break points at 5-4 and had set points in the tiebreaker that she couldn’t convert. Her backhand, normally the more reliable side, began to go wayward. The problems she’s had in the past with her serve began to creep back up. To go from almost certainly winning the set to losing it 7-6 was a huge blow, but that’s tennis. It happens to everyone.
But instead of digging in and making Krejcikova raise her level, Gauff played deflated tennis. Instead of taking a breath to regroup, she sped herself up, sprayed errors off both wings and she fell behind 5-0 in what seemed like 15 minutes.
Eventually, Gauff found some fight, closing the gap to 5-3 and making Krejcikova navigate a potentially tricky serve game to finish it off. Perhaps that, too, will be something to learn from down the line.
“I kind of always had that thing. I never want to give up,” Gauff said. “Today I really did fight ’til the last point. I’m proud that I didn’t give up because I could have easily gave up at 5-0 or 5-1. I think losing these matches are going to pay off in the future. I think if I continue fighting like this, other players, maybe if they do have the lead, will start to get nervous because they know I’m not going to give in.”
Opponents should already be nervous because if you zoom out on this season as a whole, it’s clear Gauff’s big breakthrough is coming soon. Ranked just outside the top 20, she is poised to keep moving up and is now 27-10 on the year. She also clinched a spot on the U.S. Olympic team as the fourth-ranked American player. Her timetable has been sped up considerably.
But Wednesday was a reminder that patience is still required. As Gauff keeps making steps toward greatness, it’s O.K. if the giant leap doesn’t come all at once.
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