How Coco Gauff can qualify for Tokyo Olympics

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After an electric, major-tournament breakout at age 15, Coco Gauff, now as a 17-year-old, strung together solid finishes in places like Lexington, Adelaide, Ostrava and, most recently, Rome, to (relatively quietly) break into the world top 30 for the first time this week.

With it, Gauff became a contender to make the four-woman U.S. Olympic team in singles. She can become the youngest Olympic tennis player since 2000, when 17-year-old Jelena Dokic and 16-year-old Mario Ancic competed in Sydney, according to Olympedia.org.

Sofia Kenin and Serena Williams already locked up the first two spots on the team, which is determined by world rankings after the French Open in four weeks. Jennifer Brady is in strong position for the third.

Gauff, who a year ago had half the qualifying points as the fourth-place American, is now in a four-player battle for that last spot (or spots, if Williams skips Tokyo). She still trails Alison Riske, Jessica Pegula and Madison Keys, but the margins are small.

So small that Gauff can pass the three veterans at a low-level tournament this week in Parma, Italy, home of one of her sponsors, Barilla. Riske, Pegula and Keys all chose not to play.

Gauff, the third-highest ranked player in the field, will move into that magic fourth spot in Olympic qualifying if she reaches the final. That may require beating the top seed, Williams, if both advance to the semifinals.

As things stand, it’s likely that the player out of Gauff, Riske, Pegula and Keys who makes the deepest run into the second week at the French Open (round of 16 or better) will snare that fourth and final Olympic spot. Gauff and Pegula performed best this clay season of that quartet.

But if two or more players share the best finish, it will come down to who entered Roland Garros with the most points. That’s what makes the next two weeks important, each with French Open tune-ups that Gauff entered.

Gauff reached this place by doing what she could not in 2019 and early 2020 — playing plenty. When she was 15, Gauff was age-restricted out of competing regularly. Since tennis resumed last summer, she’s played the most tournaments of any American in the Olympic mix.

Yet Gauff did so largely out of the spotlight, at least relative to the 15-year-old who made the fourth round of Wimbledon and beat Naomi Osaka at the Australian Open. The 17-year-old Gauff lost in the first or second round of her three Grand Slams.

But she was busier at less-visible events. Most notably last week in Rome, beating fourth-ranked Aryna Sabalenka en route to the semifinals of the biggest pre-French Open tournament. Gauff was gifted a quarterfinal win due to top-ranked Ash Barty‘s injury (Barty led 6-4, 2-1 upon retirement).

In the semifinals, the young American took nine games off her favored opponent, 2020 French Open champion Iga Swiatek. That Gauff effort looked better the following day, when Swiatek dropped just 13 points in the final.

Gauff said last week she’s pleased with the progress made since her Wimbledon run nearly two years ago. Before that tournament, she was the 37th-highest-ranked American just starting on a senior-level career.

“During that time people were saying, it’s a fluke, it will never happen again,” Gauff said last week. “I think I’ve proved all those people wrong. I’m going to continue to prove them wrong.”

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How Coco Gauff can qualify for Tokyo Olympics originally appeared on NBCSports.com