Opinion: American Coco Gauff, now 17, looks ready to challenge French Open

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Nearly two years ago, Coco Gauff became a very famous tennis player when she made the fourth round of Wimbledon at age 15. When she followed it with a third-round showing at the U.S. Open and another fourth round at the 2020 Australian Open, beating Naomi Osaka in the process, it seemed as if the hype train might spin out of control before she was even old enough to join the WTA Tour on a full-time basis.

It was, in many ways, a dangerous time for Gauff’s career. Tennis’ penchant for heaping pressure on young phenoms before they’re ready to handle it either emotionally or meet those expectations on the court is an all-too-familiar story.

But then a strange thing happened. For whatever reason — probably some combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and problems with her own game — the storylines positioning Gauff as tennis’ next big superstar kind of disappeared.

It was probably the best thing for her.

As the French Open gets underway, there is plenty of discussion about Rafael Nadal’s quest for a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam title, Roger Federer’s return to the big stage after two knee surgeries last year, Serena Williams trying again for No. 24 and Osaka announcing she won’t do interviews during the tournament after two straight Grand Slam wins but a spring in which she struggled on clay.

Coco Gauff has won 12 of 15 matches during the current clay season.
Coco Gauff has won 12 of 15 matches during the current clay season.

There’s not nearly as much buzz about Gauff now as there would have been, say, a year ago had the French Open been held May. It has died down considerably since she beat Venus Williams at Wimbledon and became one of the biggest stories in sports, an event that now feels like a pretty long time ago.

But something significant has changed between then and now, even if it’s been largely ignored by the American news media and general public. Still only 17, Gauff has worked her way into becoming a real factor in women’s tennis, not just for the promise of what she could become but what she already is.

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For the first time in her career, Gauff enters the French as a seeded player, up to No. 25 in the world after starting the tour’s post-COVID-19 pause last August at No. 53. She will start at Roland Garros on Tuesday against 57th-ranked Aleksandra Krunic and will be favored to at least reach the third round, where she could play No. 13 seed Jennifer Brady.

But unlike her previous Grand Slam experiences, it would not be a surprise this time if Gauff ends up advancing deep into the draw.

During the clay season this spring, Gauff has won 12 of 15 matches and played probably the best tennis of her career just last week in Parma, Italy where she won the Emilia-Romagna Open for her second WTA title. Prior to that, Gauff made the semifinals at the Italian Open where she notched wins over No. 18 Maria Sakkari and No. 4 Aryna Sabalenka, who has been one of the most in-form players on the women’s tour this year.

Perhaps Gauff isn’t quite ready to win a Grand Slam, but it’s no longer a reach to think that she could do it.

“I think I have been playing a lot freer, and I think you can see it while I’m on the court,” Gauff told reporters at her pre-French Open news conference Friday. “That’s how I’m going into this tournament. I just feel like even now when the score is a little bit tough, instead of stressing out I think I’m really just enjoying the pressure and enjoying the moment.”

With a talent as prodigious as Gauff, there was probably no reason to worry whether the exceptional flashes she showed at 15 would translate into becoming a big-time player. At the same time, there have been some hiccups along the way.

After the COVID-19 pause last summer, Gauff didn’t necessarily look like she had taken a big leap forward. Beyond the uneven results, including a first-round exit at the U.S. Open and a loss to qualifier Martina Trevisan in the second round at the French, it seemed like opponents had figured out how to play Gauff, targeting her sometimes inconsistent forehand. Gauff also struggled to close out matches, due largely to a serve that became too unreliable under pressure.

But in the past month, it seems Gauff’s development has sped up considerably. Her forehand looked more solid than ever in Italy, and she’s been able to cut her double faults from 8.3 per match last season to 5.5 this year. Already one of the best athletes in the sport, her ability to defend is made for the clay, and the way she has played on it so far suggests a high tennis IQ and growing ability to build points and be selective in deploying her weapons.

When young phenoms get the kind of results Gauff had at age 15, there’s a natural temptation to expect a lot very quickly. In previous generations, it was unusual but not unprecedented to see women at 16 or 17 compete at the very top of the sport and even win Grand Slams.

For a variety of reasons, it's tougher to do that now. With all the potential pitfalls of too much, too soon, it’s probably a good thing that Gauff — even as mature and comfortable as she seems in every public setting — was given some time and space for her game to develop without the massive pressure that she needed to start winning Slams.

And we’re still a long way from that. Even if she gets to the fourth round of this tournament and loses to No. 1 seed Ash Barty, it will be a huge success.

But it’s no longer wise to rule out the possibility of Gauff doing something even bigger at these tournaments. These days, she absolutely belongs among the best players in the world and her time to win big trophies doesn’t seem too far off.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: French Open: American Coco Gauff looks ready for Grand Slam challenge