A few days before the French Open began, Coco Gauff was out on Court Simonne Mathieu, working with a familiar figure on her sometimes balky forehand. This is nothing new -- the stroke has always been the double-edged sword by which she wins or loses.
A year ago, it got her all the way to the French Open final.
“Obviously the forehand is something that I have to improve on, but on clay especially I feel like it’s one of my weapons,” Gauff said to reporters. “Last year, I won a lot of points using that heavy forehand, and I think that that’s something I continue to do this year.”
As she navigates the challenging path from child to adult, the 19-year-old Gauff has briefly reunited with a comforting voice from her past, Patrick Mouratoglou. They first met at his academy in the south of France when she was an undersized 10-year-old. Mouratoglou, looking for young candidates to coach, was impressed with her game but the exit interview left him more than a little fascinated.
“Coco Gauff came across as someone who knew very clearly what she wanted,” Mouratoglou wrote in an exclusive 2019 column for Tennishead. “She was very sure of herself, very self-confident, without being cocky, and clearly had the drive to succeed.
“I liked what Coco said. She was incredibly sure that she had the capacity to reach the top and that she would do everything necessary to achieve her ambitions.”
Gauff’s current goal is to go one step further than last year and win her first Grand Slam singles title. That journey begins Tuesday in a first-round match against Rebeka Masarova. After the departure of Diego Moyano, Gauff has been without a full-time coach. Mouratoglou, who coached Serena Williams to 10 of her 23 major titles from 2012-22, agreed to step in and work with her for the remainder of the clay season.
“I have a great relationship with Patrick,” Gauff said. “I thought he would be a perfect person to help me during this time. Yeah, I’m looking forward to the next two weeks with him.”
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From an early age, tennis players are often programmed to follow instructions. Their lives are carefully orchestrated, their time managed to the minute. In recent weeks, Gauff has talked about the difficulty of taking a more forceful part in those myriad decisions. For example, how exactly should the 60 minutes of a scheduled practice be deployed? Should the focus be more on weaknesses -- or strengths?
Something different about the clay at RG💓 pic.twitter.com/pusLzrEcDM— Coco Gauff (@CocoGauff) May 24, 2023
‘I think that’s part of the part of adulthood, I guess,” Gauff said. “I think Patrick, as well as previous coaches, wants me to be more vocal about my game and about what I want to do.
“I’m just used to doing what I’m told. I think that’s what made me a good student in tennis, but obviously to make it to that next level I have to do the things.”
Relative to the level of expectation, Gauff’s 2023 results have a tinge of disappointment. But most players on the Hologic WTA Tour would take them in a second. Gauff, 23-5, is ranked No.9 in the Race to the WTA Finals and No.6 overall. She opened the year with a title in Auckland and has added two doubles crowns with Jessica Pegula. Gauff was a semifinalist at the year’s first WTA 1000 in Dubai and a quarterfinalist in Indian Wells -- losing to No.1 Iga Swiatek and No.2 Aryna Sabalenka, respectively.
The clay season has been below her standards. Gauff went 3-3 in Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome, losing to Anastasia Potapova, Paula Badosa and Marie Bouzkova. Like all of them, Masarova, at No.71, is ranked well below Gauff. They’ve played once, the 6-1, 6-1 final that went to Gauff in Auckland.
“It’s cliché to say, but looking at myself then and now, I get the memories on my Snapchat or whatever from a year ago, and sometimes you look at yourself and you just see a different person,” Gauff said. “I think I’ve grown a lot in that year.
“No matter how young or how old I am, I think I’m always going to be in this process of learning about myself. But I feel like even more in these years as I’m transitioning into being a real adult.”
Other notable Tuesday first-round matches
No.1 Iga Swiatek vs. Cristina Bucsa: Back in January, Swiatek won their only previous meeting, 6-0, 6-1 in the third round of the Australian Open.
No.4 Elena Rybakina vs. Brenda Fruhvirtova: First meeting
No.7 Ons Jabeur vs. Lucia Bronzetti: First meeting
No.13 Barbora Krejcikova vs. Lesia Tsurenko: First meeting
No.18 Victoria Azarenka vs. Bianca Andreescu: First meeting