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Gauff leaves junior years behind in 2022 despite first-round defeat

The American has played her last Slam as a junior

Coco Gauff, Open d'Australie 2022 Tennis – Australian Open – Melbourne Park, Melbourne, Australia – January 17, 2022 Coco Gauff of the U.S. leaves the court after losing her first round match against China’s Wang Qiang || 218208_0270

Australian Open 2022 | Draw | Order of play | 1st round

It says something when a teenager being knocked out of a Grand Slam in the first round is classified as a “shock”.

More than that, she’s a teenager who has never yet made it beyond the quarter-finals of any major.

But then again, we’re talking about the Australian Open’s 18th seed Coco Gauff. She may have fallen to Wang Qiang (6-4, 6-2) in her opening match in Melbourne, but 2022 is still set to be a huge year for the American.

The defeat on Day 1 at Flinders Park will be her last singles match at a Slam as a junior – she turns 18 in March. She has topped the junior world rankings – and this year she is set to continue making strides on the senior rankings too, beyond her current career high of world No 16.

  • Women’s seeds who lost on Monday at the Australian Open (1st round) : Kenin (11), Gauff (18).
  • Seeds who won on Monday at the Australian Open (1st round) : Barty (1), Krejcikova (4),  Sakkari (5), Badosa, (8), Bencic (12), Osaka (13), Svitolina (15), Pegula (21), Azarenka (24), Ostapenko (26), Kudermetova (28), Giorgi (30), Sorribes Tormo (32)

Gauff already has two singles titles on tour – winning Parma last year and Linz in 2019 – and has made more than $2.5 million in prize money so far. Although she has not yet reached a Slam semi-final, she has made the fourth round of all except the US Open.

There are still things to work on, of course. While still a minor, the number of senior events she has been permitted to enter each year has been limited, a universal rule across the WTA Tour to protect youngsters. Her senior career win/loss record is now poised at a fascinating split – 90 wins, 45 losses, which works out at a 66% win percentage. And her defeat to Wang was clearly a huge blow for her.

I was ready to have a good run here

Coco Gauff

“Everything disappointed me about today,” she admitted in her press conference. “I feel like in the preseason I worked really hard, and I felt like I was ready to have a good run here. Today I just didn’t perform well, and I think learning-wise, I think there’s a lot to learn from. I think I didn’t play as free as I normally do today. I think I was playing a little bit tighter than normal.

“So I think next time coming into the first round of a slam, especially after a tough week before, I think I need to just play more free and focus on the moment.”

Wilander – Time for Gauff to play tactical tennis

Seven-time Grand Slam singles champion Mats Wilander had a slightly different view. He suggested that winning titles isn’t always about playing well, but making your opponent play worse.

“I think for Coco Gauff it’s time to start playing tennis,” he said on Eurosport in the UK. “She’s physically so quick, so strong. For being so young, she’s extremely mature on the court. Tactically, I find she comes for shots – why would you go there, why would you do that? It’s time for her to tactically learn how to be a better player. Hopefully she can learn. Some players never learn how to play tactical tennis, they just play physical tennis.

Coco Gauff of the USA in action during her first round match against China’s Wang Qiang

“For her to be a future Grand Slam champion, now the pressure is really starting to build on Coco Gauff. She still has many many years before she’s going to get to her best but now she needs to learn to figure out her opponent and all the things she needs to do to make her opponent worse. You can’t always be perfect.”

If I’m going to lose, that’s how I want to – where I had chances, I fought the whole match

Coco Gauff

One of the most impressive things about Gauff’s attitude is that she has internalised that sporting maxim “You win – or you learn”. After world No 1 Ash Barty handed out a lesson in match management to her at the Adelaide International at the start of January – coming through to win 4-6, 7-5, 6-1 – the 17-year-old seemed almost pleased that she had had the opportunity to learn from the best in the world.

“That’s what I’ve been trying to work on – taking more positives when I lose, not beat myself up,” she said the week after. “It’s never good to lose. I will say if I’m going to lose, that’s how I want to – where I had chances, I fought the whole match, I was mentally engaged the whole match. She just played better when she needed to. Sometimes that’s what happens when you play the No 1 player in the world. I know I need to raise my level even more.I think it was a good lesson for me early in the season.”

She has also never been afraid to talk about what troubles her – an endearing candour that may also help with that feeling of liberation after which she strives on the court. She spoke in 2020 about a feeling of depression that grabbed hold of her when tennis observers began to build up the hype around her: “I was just lost. I was confused and overthinking if this was what I wanted or what others did. It took many moments sitting, thinking and crying. I came out of it stronger and knowing myself better than ever.”

And she expressed her sympathy for gymnast Simone Biles during the Tokyo Olympic Games, saying that at the start of 2021, she had tennis’s version of the “twisties” on her second serve.

Gauff – I’m super excited for 2022

That week in Adelaide where she lost to Barty was her first tournament back on tour since October, when she lost 6-2, 6-2 in the round of 32 at Indian Wells to eventual champion Paula Badosa.

And despite her defeat to Barty, she was set up beautifully for the following week at the Adelaide International 2, where she went in as third seed. She made it to the final four there, falling to the unseeded former US Open runner-up Madison Keys, who triumphed 3-6, 6-2, 7-5 – meaning Gauff again lost after going one set up. Perhaps Wilander’s advice about tactics could also apply to match management; the wilier older players on the circuit know that at the moment they can use the first set to get a better read on Gauff’s game if needed, and steer their way through to win.

“I’m super excited for this year,” she said after her loss to Keys. “I really do feel like I had a good pre-season and I feel really confident on the court. Even though like the pre-season was two months, I feel like I improved so much during those couple months of training. I’m hoping that I can show that to you guys and show that to myself in the matches.”

Gauff will have the chance to do that again this fortnight during the doubles alongside Caty McNally – and then during the rest of the year as she turns 18 and consolidates her place as one of the best grown-ups on tour.

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