Gauff sets sights on long stay in favourite city

 - Dan Imhoff

After her dual trophy sweep in Italy at the weekend, US teenager aims to build on junior success in Paris

Coco Gauff wins Parma 2021© Magni Images/MEF Tennis Events

A first trip abroad has a tendency to leave a lingering mark like no other, a taste of a whole other world out there, regardless of age.

For Coco Gauff, it came while still only at primary school. That first overseas destination: France.

Last week, the Atlanta-born teenager scooped the singles and doubles trophies at the same tour event for the first time in her fledgling career in Parma, Italy.

Dinner outside the bubble, she said, would be her welcome reward – and some incentive it was, given this was a city renowned for its pasta, Parmesan cheese and Parma ham.

Her next stop, however, held a particularly special hold on her – and not just for its cuisine.

A return to the French capital would bring back memories of that first stamp in the passport, a first junior Grand Slam title four years later and the beginnings of a scholarship to learn from one of the nation’s most revered tennis mentors.

“I love Paris, it's my favourite city and Roland-Garros always has some good memories from the juniors, even last year,” Gauff said. 

“I love the Eiffel Tower and love the food. I like the language. Paris is the first city I visited out of the country. I visited when I was 10 and ever since then I loved it.

Cori Gauff / RG 2018 / Juniors© Amélie Laurin / FFT

“Just walking around, I just feel happy there. I don’t know what makes me like it, but it just draws me to it. France as a whole, it has been a second home for me. I spend a lot of time in Nice at the Mouratoglou Academy.

“For me, I like to be home when I can so I just think of it as a home away from home. It gives me that feeling that I’m at home even when I’m not. So France as a whole is like a second home country for me.”

Three years ago, at age 14, Gauff triumphed in her favourite city – incidentally over her Parma doubles partner and good friend, Caty McNally – to become the youngest junior Roland-Garros champion since Martina Hingis in 1993.

She added another handful of “youngest since” markers to her name, following her double title triumph in Italy on Sunday.

At 17 years and 70 days, she became the youngest woman to clinch both singles and doubles at the same event since Maria Sharapova at Birmingham 17 years ago. Sharapova went on to win her first major in her following event.

Victory elevated Gauff to a career-best of world No.25 in the rankings, the youngest in the top 25 since Nicole Vaidisova in 2005 and the youngest American since Serena Williams almost 23 year ago.

From four clay-court tournaments this season, she has compiled a 12-3 record, including a quarter-final result in Charleston and a first WTA 1000 semi-final in Rome, where she brought down Aryna Sabalenka en route.

“Definitely means a lot, especially on clay, which is not really, I feel, like a surface people associate me with so it feels good and I like the dirt now,” she laughed in response to her dual Parma haul. “It feels great. I want to keep going higher and higher. It feels good to be making a career-high ranking.”

It marked the young American’s first title on clay and her second WTA singles trophy, following her breakthrough in Linz in 2019.

Nerves were understandably at play in that maiden final in Austria against a Roland-Garros champion, Jelena Ostapenko, no less. Her triumph in Saturday’s final against Wang Qiang came in far more routine fashion.

“Linz I was really nervous closing the match and I hadn't been in that moment before and it was more a relief whereas here I felt more like it was meant to be,” Gauff said. “Here I was just going to go for it, trust myself and trust my decisions and that's why I feel like here it was more like it was meant to be, not relief.”

Despite Gauff’s string of “youngest since” achievements, ESPN analyst and former WTA player Pam Shriver told it was not fair to compare major successes at early ages anymore. 

“She has such a much bigger game, maybe more dynamic, than [Martina] Hingis, [Tracy] Austin and Chrissie [Evert],” Shriver said.

“She’s consistent, hungry, speed around the court. What worries me is that she has some flaws in the forehand and the serve that just gives me some hesitation… [but] I think it’s proven it’s harder to have that major success at an early age so I would hate for her to feel there’s a timetable or a time limit.”

While keeping expectations in check, Gauff already sees no reason to place a limit on how deep she can go in her favourite city. An off-the-cuff remark about allowing herself some downtime following her two title runs and celebratory Parma dinner indicated as much: “I feel like I'll take one or two days off because Paris is going to be a long one.”