MONTREAL, Canada -- It's easy to take Coco Gauff's success as a teenage phenom for granted. Since bursting on to the scene as a 15-year-old at Wimbledon four years ago, she has set "youngest since" milestones with every big result. Now 19 and ranked No.7, she remains the youngest player in the Top 50.
But the elephant in the room over the past two seasons has been her forehand. With her extreme grip and long takeback, opponents quickly began to key in on that side. Gauff knew, the locker room knew, and this season, everyone started saying it out loud.
"Of course going more to her forehand, mostly because her backhand is very good," Paula Badosa said after beating Gauff 6-2, 6-0 in Madrid this spring. "Yeah, sometimes just give it to her and make her do more. That's a little bit the tactic that I can say now. I hope she doesn't read it."
Gauff didn't have to read it, but the scouting report was now out in the open. The question was how to address it.
"A lot of people don't realize it's not easy to fix things while you're playing," Gauff told reporters ahead of the Omnium Banque Nationale. "I didn't want to take time off from playing. I still felt like I had a shot in the Slams. I mean, I made a Slam final last year."
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After going coachless during the clay and grass season, Gauff hired Pere Riba before Wimbledon. The Spaniard had coached Zheng Qinwen into the Top 30. After connecting with Brad Gilbert, who famously coached Andre Agassi to six of his eight Slam titles, Gauff asked Gilbert to join the team for a trial last week at the Mubadala Citi DC Open.
She won the title without losing a set, defeating three Top 20 players along the way. And she credited the improvements in her forehand, serve and attitude for the win.
"Everybody is trying to play the forehand," Gauff said after winning Washington D.C. "Like, I'm not going to sit here and act like it's some secret.
"I think that consistently this week I have beaten that scouting report, and I think that's why the players tend to get a little more frustrated. Almost all week every player that I played has been looking at their box, because I truly think that the plan that they had I was able to kind of combat that."
Even as a 15-year-old, Gauff's defensive skills were on par with the game's best. Anecdotally, based on pure foot speed, the locker room consistently rates her as the fastest player on tour. But as she focuses on amplifying her aggression from the baseline, the sport could be on the cusp of Coco 2.0. She describes it as a "rebuilding period". Yes, her base game got her to a Grand Slam final and Top 5 ranking.
But Coco Gauff isn't here to make finals. She wants to win, even if it takes time to retool her game into one that succeeds on the biggest stages. After speaking with Riba and Gilbert, Gauff came into Washington D.C. with an eye towards playing more first-strike tennis. That change of intent, along with improved footwork around her forehand, changed everything.
"There's still room for a lot of improvement," Gauff said. "But within the three-week span, it's been since my first-round loss [at Wimbledon] to now, I feel like it's improved so much where I don't feel like it's a liability.
"It's becoming a weapon."
In Riba and Gilbert, Gauff has an immense resource of tactics and strategy at her disposal. Gauff found value in Riba's strategic mind and youth. She added Gilbert as a consultant to fill the experience gap.
"You bring up any player, [Brad] can tell you a lot of things about them without watching," Gauff said. "Obviously he watched their matches, but honestly, his mind is like that. I don't think he needs to."
With her multi-national team set, Gauff feels more settled and purposeful now. Even if some good-humored confusion still reigns within the camp.
"My fitness coach is French, physio and coach are Spanish, Brad just speaks his own language," Gauff said after bragging about her 26-day streak on Duolingo.
"Pere and Maria [Vago], they're trying to teach me Spanish, so my brain is just scrambled. Then Brad is teaching me all of these quirky Californian '80s sayings, and he is trying to get me to listen to the Eagles.
"I don't even -- I was, like, the Philadelphia Eagles?
"It's just too much going on on my team right now."
Beyond her technical and tactical improvements, Gauff tapped into her fun side in Washington D.C. Her professionalism has been a hallmark of her career, but somewhere along the way, she forgot she was still a teenager who could enjoy herself on the court.
"So I have these feelings in the past that I wanted to do that, but I felt like, 'Oh, I need to be professional, blah, blah, blah.' You know how tennis is.
"But I realize that's not my personality. I want to do that and have fun."
And have fun she did. In Washington D.C. there was her post-point celebration after winning an athletic point in the quarterfinals. After match point in the final she danced not once but twice, throwing in a Milly Rock to punctuate her glee. She credits Frances Tiafoe's infectious energy for inspiring her to let loose a little.
"Even the other day, Bencic, she hit a return," Gauff said, "and it was a really good return, and I thought it was going to go in but it was barely out because it hit the net cord. I went to my box and said, 'If that went in, I was going to break my racquet.'
"Before, I used to tell myself, Don't say anything. Be stiff. Then I realize these emotions are building up, and I'm not having fun. So now I'm going to let it happen, play into the crowd. Because when I'm watching as a fan, I love it. As a player, I want to do it. But before I would just shut myself down.
"Now I just really want to have fun playing tennis."