Coco Gauff: Winning ugly with Brad Gilbert, but winning handsomely at the French Open

Coco Gauff was in a weird place a month ago. She was teetering on the edge of greatness and of disaster, from set to set, or even game to game. Sometimes, point to point.

She’d just lost a winnable round-of-16 clash at the Madrid Open to compatriot Madison Keys, a match that included 14 breaks of serve and 13 double faults by Gauff. There were moments when she was doing all the Gauff things — competing for every point, even when her game was limping, bashing her backhand, trying to find safety in her forehand during its waves of instability — but, to modify the words of her coach a little, the “winning” part of “winning ugly” is a pretty key part of the formula.

After that defeat to Keys in April, she had won just one tournament for the season and hadn’t reached a final since January. It wasn’t where she wanted to be two tournaments into what should be one of the best stretches of the tennis calendar for her. Clay is friendly to her strengths, to her endurance and to her athleticism, and it softens opponents’ ability to attack her forehand by giving her an a little extra time to set up for the ball. She gets plenty of opportunities to turn matches into battles of attrition, which she tends to win, bolstered by her serve which, at its best, is one of the fastest and least returnable on the WTA Tour.

These are the difficult moments that can eat a 20-year-old still trying to get to where she wants to be in the sport that has ruled her life since the middle of elementary school. They can send tennis players spiraling into a course of doubt, panic and impatience if they don’t figure out how to pull back the lens.

Gauff has sometimes had to scramble through doubts in matches (Dimitar Dilkoff / AFP via Getty Images)

“Not the level where I want to be, but I am optimistic because I am getting through these close matches playing like D tennis,” she said. “If I can get to a B level, I could have the chance to go really far.”

Four matches into the French Open, she’s proving good on her word. There are still moments in every match when her forehand gets wobbly and her serve falls out of sync — for reasons both mental and technical that only she will ever truly understand. But Gauff, who is undoubtedly the most unpredictable world No 3 and Grand Slam champion of the moment, looks as clinical as she’s been in a while.

In the moment, it might not look so clinical. She doesn’t necessarily experience it that way. But the numbers don’t lie.

Just before she lost to Keys, Gauff lost a similarly topsy-turvy match to Marta Kostyuk in Stuttgart, also in three sets.

After that match, her record for 2024 was 19-6. Within that, she was 15-2 in two-set matches and 4-4 in three-set matches. The thrilling, staggering inability to even counsel giving up, or to leave a ball unstretched for was always there. But it wasn’t really working.

At the French Open, she has played four matches, winning eight sets — her most clinical period of the year since winning that one title, in New Zealand in January. Sunday, she faced a tricky clay-court fan, if not a specialist in Elisabetta Cocciaretto. Gauff maneuvred her left, and right, and left, and right, until Cocciaretto’s groundstrokes went limp and her arms went leaden. She simply had no answer.

Since that defeat to Kostyuk, she’s played 12 and won 10. Seven of those wins have been in straight sets. She lost that match to Keys, and the other to world No 1 Iga Swiatek in Rome. Winning ugly is looking a lot more like winning handsomely.

Coco Gauff’s existence has long been so markedly different from other 20-year-olds for as long as she can remember, even far different than the overwhelming majority of her competition. 

Leaving America in early April, with a likely return not until mid-summer? That’s no big deal. She’s been training in the south of France for a few months a year at Patrick Mouratoglou’s Academy. She and her parents can pitch up there during the down moments. Ben Shelton is an American 20-year-old. He hadn’t used a passport until he reached that age.

Clay? She loves it, again; lots of time spent at Mouratoglou’s place as a kid. It’s possible there hasn’t been another American born in one of the 50 states as happy about having red dust under her feet since Chris Evert, who didn’t have the worst record at the French Open. (Just the seven titles.)

Even Swiatek, the world No 1 for more than 100 weeks now, was considered something of an ingenue when she won the French Open in 2019 at 19 years old, unseeded, and ranked 54th in the world. It was her first year on tour.

Gauff? She was five seasons into her career by 19. A huge benefit, given the wisdom that can come from experience, but also its own kind of challenge. Most women get the opportunity to become more fully formed as players and people, working out kinks in their games during an anonymous teenage existence. Coco Gauff was winning on Centre Court at Wimbledon by 15.



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She had to more visibly and more carefully balance her development with the pressures of fame, with the status of being a phenom. You have to win, early and often, not just against big players where you’re the underdog for experience and should have nothing to lose, but against everybody else, who might not have the talent of you or those huge names you have to beat. If they beat you, you’re letting yourself and your expectations down.

It was this pressure that she ended up putting on herself. She gave herself a deadline of winning a Grand Slam by her 20th birthday, because all the greats had won their first big titles as teens.

She figured she had lost that chance last summer, when she lost in the first round of Wimbledon, but she captured the U.S. Open at the end of the summer. She just turned 20 in March this year and, in her estimation, remains several years away from the peak period — or more likely periods of her career.

Coco Gauff US Open scaled

Gauff after beating Aryna Sabalenka to win her first Grand Slam title (Sarah Stier / Getty Images)

Pulling back the lens on her psyche, as well as her game, she sees how hard she has been on herself.  

“I’m 15, and I’m playing these top players,” she said in a reflective moment the other day. “It was hard to develop my game when playing week-by-week and playing top players.”

She knows now that she likely put a little too much emphasis on results rather than her development, especially given that tennis allows for so little time off for players to make those essential adjustments. “I got down on myself when I lost a lot, and I’m just, like, ‘You were so young, and I’m still young, but you were definitely super young then, and you’re still developing.’”

That’s not always the easiest thing to think about when her biggest competition, Swiatek and Aryna Sabalenka, are smothering opponents by lopsided scores. Swiatek finished off Anastasia Potopova, 6-0, 6-0 in 39 minutes Sunday. No one blinks an eye when Sabalenka’s power suffocates opponents, even though she too went to dark places with her serve, forced into a hyper-speed remaking of the most biomechanically complex shot in tennis between two Masters 1000s, the first of which ended in defeat to none other than Gauff.



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Swiatek went to three sets in just seven of her 42 matches ahead of the French Open. Sabalenka started the season winning her first 12 matches — and didn’t require a third set in any of them. Gauff went to a third set in 11 of her 33 matches over the same period, in part because she is still trying to find that balance between development and results. 

In Madrid, she said she was in the middle of making some technical tweaks in her serve but didn’t want to specify what they were. It helps that it’s not the first time she has struggled with her serve, which, when it’s on, is a 120mph missile that opponents can struggle to get their rackets on. When it isn’t, her forehand generally gets messy, too, and she’s got to lean into that “winning ugly” made famous by her coach, Brad Gilbert.

I think it’s just more mental if anything,” she said. 

At the Italian Open earlier this month, she double-faulted nine, 15 and 11 times in her first three matches, but she won them all, and she’s averaging just five double-faults in four matches at the French Open. 

But, for the moment, the tweaks have stopped. Fiddling around with technique is a terrible idea in the middle of a Grand Slam, even if it’s been working — especially because the French Open is a promising hunting ground for Gauff.

She has made the final before and has legitimate designs on getting there again, though Swiatek and her 10-1 record against Gauff would be a formidable semi-final opponent if they can both get that far. Next up, for now, is Ons Jabeur and her unmatched creativity in the quarter-finals.  

“What you want to do is improve through each match,” Gauff said. “Sometimes how you start is not necessarily how you finish a tournament.”

This year at Roland Garros, that might not be such a bad thing.

(Top photo: Aurelien Meunier / Getty Images)

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