Debutante Gauff ready to rock Paris

 - Chris Oddo

At 16, the American has already made a habit of pushing the envelope. Now she has Roland-Garros in her sights.

Coco Gauff winning the Roland-Garros juniors 2018 title©Cédric Lecocq/FFT

As a 14-year-old, in 2018, Coco Gauff stormed to the Roland-Garros Girls’ Singles title to become the youngest player to lift the trophy since Martina Hingis in 1993.

Since that time we’ve become much better acquainted with the precocious American, who has made a habit of smashing age-related records over the past 15 months.

A sampling: Last year at Wimbledon Gauff became the youngest player to reach the second week since 1991, and the youngest to yet to qualify for the main draw. This January in Melbourne, Gauff toppled defending champion Naomi Osaka to become the youngest player to reach the Australian Open’s second week since Hingis in 1996. 

Back in Paris at the scene of her greatest junior triumph, Gauff will set her sights on further disruption in the first round against No.9 seed Johanna Konta, a semi-finalist in Paris last year. 

Gauff, who turned 16 in March and is currently ranked 53rd, fell in the second round of qualifying in 2019 at Roland-Garros.

Since then many boxes have been ticked in the development department. On Sunday, she’ll check off another, making her main draw debut on the terre battue.

Two-time Roland-Garros men’s singles champion Jim Courier is excited to see what she can do. 

“She's a junior champion there,” he said. “She likes the clay. The surface is not a barrier to entry for her by any means. It's an opportunity.” 

Courier, who owns the fourth-longest match winning streak in Roland-Garros men’s singles history at 20, thinks Gauff should forget about the lofty expectations that are already being placed on her and just seek to improve. 

“She's still very much a work in progress,” he said. “It's going to be great to see her play there, see exactly what she can do. We know she's someone who is not afraid of the dirt.” 

Gauff’s first-round opponent has already paid her dues on the red clay of Roland-Garros. Konta entered 2019 with an 0-4 record in Paris, but finished as a semi-finalist.

Cori Gauff, Roland-Garros 2020, entraînement ©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

The British No.1 notes that Gauff is no deer in the headlights on the Grand Slam stage. 

“I know she's very mature for her age,” she said. “That's why she's able to compete at the level she's competing. She's physically and mentally mature enough to deal with the demands we have on tour. Obviously she's going to just keep getting better and better.” 

Gauff’s maturity has helped unlock her game on the court, and it has also helped her find her voice off of it. When tennis shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic this spring, Gauff’s personal growth continued.

Backing up her promise to always use her platform for good, Gauff has spoken out against racial injustice in the US and become a leading voice for equality on the WTA Tour. 

“I believe we have a future leader, role model, and activist in Coco Gauff,” seven-time Roland-Garros champion Chris Evert tweeted in May. “At the young age of 16, she is showing up in the fight against racial prejudice. She could champion human rights and still be a champion in tennis. I believe she can be an inspiration and do it all.”

With the personal and professional moving in parallel, Gauff is back on the circuit, excited to be playing in her favourite city and eager to continue her progression. Last week she picked up a win over Ons Jabeur on the Rome clay, then took 2016 Roland-Garros champion Garbiñe Muguruza to three sets in the second round. 

Gauff, who fell to Anastasija Sevastova in the first round at the US Open, said the experience of playing three tournaments on hard courts gave her a good feel for where her game was at. 

“I wasn't feeling like the most comfortable on court, but I think now I really found my way,” she said in Rome. “I was definitely able to reflect after the US Open and learn and practise and try to get ready for the clay season.” 

Whether her Paris debut ends on a winning note or not, perhaps Sevastova summed up the allure of Gauff best after she survived her in three sets at the US Open. 

“She's a great player,” she said. “She's 16 years old and she's playing like that. I wish I would play like that at 16.”