Coco Gauff chasing tennis greatness thanks to critics and her passion

Not too long after Coco Gauff pulled off one of the best wins of her career, against the world No 4 Aryna Sabalenka in Rome this month, she was asked to reflect on the progress she has made since her breakthrough in the summer of 2019. Gauff responded without hesitation. She was absolutely happy with it, she said, but that she would not be satisfied until she reached her ultimate goal. Then she shrugged.

“Especially during that time people were saying: ‘It’s a fluke, it will never happen again,’” she said. “I think I’ve proved all those people wrong. I’m going to continue to prove them wrong.”

While athletes citing haters as their motivation is a quite tired trope, Gauff’s description of some of the reactions to her breakthrough at 15 years old was not inaccurate. During those first steps of her career, when she beat Venus Williams and Naomi Osaka en route to fourth-round finishes at Wimbledon and the 2020 Australian Open, her precociousness resonated with an intensity among casual fans that is rare for tennis. Seemingly any mention of her success would spread virally across social media with help from prominent figures such as Michelle Obama and Kamala Harris.

The criticisms quickly became clear: her breakthrough may have been notable but Venus Williams was 38 years old and far from her best days, Osaka performed abysmally and Gauff was the beneficiary of helpful draws. At a time when other young players were also thriving, it was also frequently argued that other players were deserving of her spotlight. There has also been ample discussion about her inability to immediately develop into a teenage grand slam contender.

Since then, however, there can be no doubt that Gauff is making clear and continuous progress on the tour and her progress is to be commended. On Saturday, Gauff took another step forward by beating Wang Qiang 6-1 6-3 to win her second WTA singles title, at the 250 event in Parma. Gauff has compiled a 20 wins and six losses record since February and she is 9-3 during this clay season.

Her timing also cannot be faulted. By rising to a career high of 25th in the rankings, Gauff will not only be seeded in a slam for the first time at Roland Garros but is probably the favourite to secure the fourth and final US Olympic spot. She is also 11th in the WTA race, the 2021-only rankings. The key to any sustained success in the sport is learning how to perform consistently away from the biggest events. Since February, she has won one title, reached two semi-finals, including in Rome, and two quarter-finals in seven events.

Even this early in her career, at a time when the second-best female player born in 2004 – Robin Montgomery – is ranked 349th, this has not been a seamless rise without friction or frustration. After the tour hiatus during the pandemic’s first wave last year, Gauff spent the remainder of the season wrestling with her second serve.

Double faults were frequent and often on important points, with Gauff landing 149 double faults in 2020 at a rate of 8.3 per match, the worst on the tour. It is extremely difficult to survive against the best players in the world while handing over eight free points per match. While those issues are not resolved, Gauff has cut down her double fault rate to 5.4 per match.

Despite her improvements, it is not yet clear where Gauff is heading and how high her ceiling could be. Her athleticism is prodigious and it has marked her as one of the best defensive players in the game – her movement narrows the court for opponents, she is excellent at producing quality shots at full stretch and she relishes eking out errors from rivals. Since those abilities are complemented by rare mental fortitude, few emerging young players are as capable at winning ugly as she is.

Alongside her defensive abilities, Gauff is also resourceful and intelligent on the court. Technically, she is not the most natural player at the net or with touch shots yet she is unafraid of and effective at making mid-match adjustments, varying her game to keep her opponents off-balance.

Whereas aspects of her game are advanced for her age, she is still green elsewhere. Her future successes will rest on some developments. Her forehand, which has improved, remains a glaring weakness at times due to her elaborate and inefficient technique. Many opponents have found joy either rushing it with pace or breaking it down with variety. She is at an age where it is easy to make significant improvements to her game. It just remains to be seen exactly how she will improve.

After clinching the singles title in Parma, Gauff followed it up with a doubles victory alongside the 19-year-old Caty McNally. It marked their third title together as Gauff became the youngest player since Maria Sharapova in 2004 to win singles and doubles at a tournament.

It underlined one of the underrated facets of her presence in the sport – these days it is rare to see young players treat doubles as anything more than just an occasional hit-and-giggle. She and McNally, another talented American, have been regular doubles partners since 2019, including at slams, and Gauff has achieved about as much in doubles as she has in singles. She is here to win and to achieve those lofty goals she has set herself, and her passion for the sport and competition is clear. That alone will take her a long way.