Coco Gauff wins ugly in match of unforced errors to reach first Australian Open semi-final

Coco Gauff celebrates match point against  Marta Kostyuk at the Australian Open
Coco Gauff was far from her fluent best but is into the semi-finals at the Australian Open - Getty Images/Martin Keep

Coco Gauff’s coach Brad Gilbert may have written a playbook called Winning Ugly, but she took that advice far too literally on Tuesday. Through a stream of errors she managed to sneak into the semi-finals of the Australian Open, and actually danced with relief once it was over.

It was a 3hr 8min mess of a match, as her opponent Ukraine’s Marta Kostyuk sprayed her own misses all over Rod Laver Arena too. They hit 107 unforced errors between them, accounting for 43 per cent of the total points played.

This was not pretty, nor was it easy for US Open champion Gauff. She produced a woeful total of 51 unforced errors – 29 on her erratic forehand side – to 17 winners. But somehow she managed to find a way to win 7-6, 6-7, 6-2 and perhaps that has been the biggest change in Gauff over the past year: gaining a champion mentality.

It is no coincidence that Gauff, 19, began working with Gilbert last summer ahead of her triumph in New York. The veteran coach previously guided champions including Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and even Andy Murray for a brief period and his ethos is built around learning to be the best competitor, rather than tinkering with perfect technique or winning in style.

Intentionally or not, Gauff has appeared to lean into that idea. Though her forehand has improved overall in the last year, it remains her Achilles heel and she has learned to deal with the constant pressure her opponents put on it, rather than take drastic action to relearn it entirely.

Gauff hits a forehand against Marta Kostyuk at the Australian Open
Gauff's forehand was once again the source of errors - Getty Images/Anadolu

She was in a pragmatic mood after her quarter-final win, admitting that she played her “C game”, but denied taking a page out of Gilbert’s actual book - revealing she has never even read it.

“I bought a copy but I didn’t read it. Maybe I should add it to my reading list. My mom actually got it for me when we were in the talks of just possibly working with Brad and she was like, ‘you need to read this’. She read it and I didn’t read it. But, you know, I feel like I got the real version so I don’t need a book.”

She and Kostyuk notched up 50 unforced errors in the first set, but Gauff somehow recovered from a 5-1 deficit to take the lead in a tie-break. To world No 37 Kostyuk’s credit, she kept scrapping. But in pushing Gauff to a deciding set, the American’s superior experience at this stage of a major shone through, and she was able to wrap up the match.

Margaret Court, Susan Johnson and Rod Laver watch on in Melbourne
Margaret Court, Susan Johnson and Rod Laver watching Gauff's victory - Shutterstock/James Ross

Gauff heads to the semi-final stage of a slam tournament for the third time in her career, with a 3-0 winning record, and said: “Hopefully [I] got the bad match out of the way and I can play even better.” Recent history suggests that may just be the case.

At last year’s US Open, Gauff also needed a couple of “ugly” matches to build her way to the title. She scored a gritty comeback win against qualifier Laura Siegmund in the first round and then beat Caroline Wozniacki despite leaking forehand errors throughout their tie. In those matches she was far from her best, but they offered learnings that helped her go on to win her first major.

“[That experience] was really important. Today was frustrating because I knew how I needed to play. I just couldn’t execute. I felt like I was going for shots that I normally make and was missing and missing by, like, a lot, not even close. But I’m just glad I was able to get through today.”

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