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Gauff showcases new serve in first-round masterclass

  • Gill Tan

As reigning US Open champion Coco Gauff pursues a maiden Australian Open title, her ability to stay loose under pressure may prove to be a literal game changer.

The fourth seed sealed a 6-3 6-0 first-round win over Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, a decade her senior, at Rod Laver Arena on Monday.

DRAW: Australian Open 2024 women's singles

The 60-minute battle between the American 19-year-old and her Slovakian rival featured six early breaks of serve until Gauff steadied. 

“When I was nervous at three-all, I just told myself ‘I feel good, I look good, so just have fun’,” Gauff said with a smile. “That was able to relax me a little bit - that’s why I play tennis, to have fun, so I remind myself.”

“Australia’s truly the happy slam, so I needed to just be happy on the court,” said Gauff. That attitude change was reflected in her tennis almost instantly.

“I was playing really passive,” acknowledged the right-hander. “I was able to just calm down and then play good, not my best, but good tennis from that point…I was just playing much deeper and much freer.”

On court, the American has been brandishing a new service motion that came to fruition after two days of work with Andy Roddick, who she described as being one of the best servers in history.

As she stepped up to serve at 5-3 in the opening set, coach Brad Gilbert called out to his charge “Be aggressive on the serve now, Coco”. Taking that advice to heart, Gauff clocked her fastest serve of the match at 198 km/h on her way to clinching seven consecutive games, and victory.

“I found my serve towards the end [of the first] and in the second set,” said Gauff, who won 100% of first serve points in the second set. Her dominance limited Schmiedlova to just five total points in the second set, including just two unforced errors off Gauff’s racquet.

To achieve more consistency, Gauff now starts her ball toss higher. “My serve is something that when it's on, it's a really big weapon and can get me out of some situations,” said the world No.4, who travelled to Charlotte, North Carolina after Roddick volunteered to help her.

“It was a great two days. [He] really helped things out, simplified Coco’s motion, abbreviated a little bit,” Gilbert said while commentating on ESPN on Sunday night.

“I don't think I could have gotten anybody else better to help me,” Gauff said. “I think that my serve has improved. I think I just need to continue to trust it and trust all the work that I did in the off-season…I want to become a more aggressive server.”

The 19-year-old, who has never made it past the fourth round at Melbourne Park, hopes to add “multiple” Grand Slams to her resume, including one this fortnight.

Her task in the second round is to navigate past countrywoman Caroline Dolehide, the world No.42 over whom she holds a 1-0 head-to-head lead.

Expect Gauff to steel herself, even if that match goes awry.

“The biggest thing I've learned is that tennis is, more than anything, a mental game,” Gauff said before the tournament. “I know the value and the power of the mind.”

After her surprise first round loss at Wimbledon last year to AO 2020 champion Sofia Kenin, Gauff approached each battle with a new outlook.

“I realised that losing isn't all that bad, and that I should just focus on the battle and the process and enjoy it. When it's five-all in the third set, enjoy that battle instead of thinking, 'What if I lose?'”

“Even when I feel like I'm not playing great, your mind can change things… that was the biggest thing I learned, trying to stay mentally focused on every point, every match, and just being positive,” she said. “I found myself being able to play freer and trust myself more.”

Unwavering support from her siblings and parents arms Gauff with added conviction.

“When I always remind myself about those relationships, I'm able to just play freer and know that I have people who love me regardless of how I do,” she said.