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Perspective shift helps propel Gauff into first major semifinal

  • Matt Trollope

Coco Gauff has shifted her thinking, with a new approach to matches helping the American achieve a Grand Slam breakthrough at Roland Garros.

Gauff beat countrywoman Sloane Stephens 7-5 6-2 on Tuesday and is yet to drop a set in five wins en route to the last four in Paris. 

Just 18 years of age, she has shown an exceptional ability to learn from losses and past mistakes, many which have come right here at Roland Garros.

READ MORE: Nadal beats Djokovic in "unforgettable night" at Roland Garros

In her first major quarterfinal in Paris last year, she was in a commanding position against Barbora Krejcikova but could not convert any of her five set points – all in the first set – against the eventual champion.

In 2020, she was a set up against Martina Trevisan – the Italian was then a little-known qualifier ranked outside the top 150 – before falling 7-5 in the third. 

This year, it is Trevisan who stands between Gauff and a place in her first major final.

“I remember that (2020) match pretty clearly. I think I was in double digits with double faults. I'm not going to do that this time around,” said Gauff, who also fell to Stephens in their previous meeting at last year’s US Open.

“Last year I lost (to Krejcikova) in the quarters and… I think that match helped me today, and I think that I was playing way too passive when I get the lead. Even today I threw in some double faults at 5-1. I think having that match I was like, I know I'm falling back into this mentality so I need to change it up, and I did.

“My grandfather always told me: Forget your wins; remember your losses. I remember each and every loss.

“I think a lot of the times when I play someone two or three times, even back in juniors, I would at least by the third time hopefully figured it out.

“Losing to Sloane at US Open and (beating her) here, and then losing to Naomi (Osaka at the 2019 US Open before beating her at AO 2020) and I lost to Trevisan, so I'm hoping the trend keeps going.”

But an even more significant development for the teenager has been her increased ability to block out external commentary.

Gauff became huge news in tennis when, at just 15 years of age, she qualified for Wimbledon, stunned Venus Williams in the first round of the main draw, then won all the way through to the last 16.

Several other impressive Grand Slam results saw her charge into the world’s top 20 as a 17-year-old.

She was already a junior phenom – she won the Roland Garros girls’ singles title at just 14 years of age – and has been contending with expectation and pressure for much of her career.

Her perspective shift has, perhaps unsurprisingly, coincided with a career-best result in Paris.

“Even last year, I think I was kind of too focused on trying to fulfil other people’s expectations,” she admitted in her on-court interview after defeating Stephens. 

“I think just enjoy life. I mean, I know how matter how good or how bad my career is, I think I’m a great person.

“So I think that’s a message for all the young players out here – that your results, and even in life in general, your results or your job, or how much money you make, don’t define you as a person. 

“Just know that if you love yourself, who cares what anyone else thinks?”

This impressively mature outlook is clearly having positive ramifications, for Gauff – who often appeared tense and tightly-wound in matches – has projected a much more relaxed, poised air at Roland Garros.

She has dismissed a succession of vastly more experienced players this fortnight, including former top-15 players Kaia Kanepi and Elise Mertens, and now the resurgent Stephens, a Roland Garros finalist four years ago who also won the US Open in 2017.

Coco Gauff celebrates her victory over Sloane Stephens, which saw her progress to a first career Grand Slam semifinal at Roland Garros. (Getty Images)

This is Gauff’s first full, traditional season on tour – she only emerged midway through 2019, before the COVID pandemic affected the 2020 and 2021 calendars – yet she has absorbed valuable lessons.

“I feel like last year I was looking at the finish line, and now I'm not looking at anything really except that ball in front of me,” she reflected.

“Going into the next match I'm just going to approach it the same. I care about the results, yes, but also at the same time I don't. Like if I gave it my all I'm not going to be upset.

“Ever since I joined the tour, or even when I was young, even eight years old, (I was) the next Serena, next this, next that, and I think I really fell into the trap of believing that.

“It's important that you have high hopes for yourself, but also, at the same time, it's important to be in reality and I think that's where I am.

“I'm enjoying the moment and enjoying the situation.”