Gauff stays grounded as second week calls

 - Dan Imhoff

US teen 'enjoying the pressure' as she notches another career first in Paris.

Coco Gauff, Roland-Garros 2021 third round©️ Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Coco Gauff is a firm believer in surrounding herself with the right people: those who will drive her to do and be better.

Since she burst onto the scene at Roland-Garros as the 2018 junior champion, the 17-year-old has frequently cited how good parents, coaches and role models have already shaped her journey for the better.

This week she realised a dream when she teamed up with one of those idols, seven-time major champion Venus Williams, in the women’s doubles, and on Saturday, the 17-year-old ticked off another first when she reached the second week in singles in Paris.

It was not the way the teenager had planned to reach the fourth round at her third different major: her US compatriot Jennifer Brady retired mid-match due to a foot injury having dropped the opening set 6-1.

As expectations only grow louder, Gauff is keeping her feet firmly grounded and willing to learn from the right people.

“I think for me, you know, being young I just feel like when I first came on tour, I felt like I had pressure to win and do all this, because people came out with a lot of expectations for me, saying I was going to be the next this or next that,” Gauff said.

“After having conversations with different coaches and different players that are on tour, I realised, I've just got to be myself and have fun on the court… Like I remember in my first round this week, even though I was down set points and had a really tough tie-breaker, I was really enjoying that competitiveness and being under pressure.

“I feel like maybe a year, probably like two years ago or a year ago, that's probably a moment that I wouldn't be in, I would be super stressed and I wouldn't enjoy it.”

It is easy to forget this is only Gauff’s seventh Grand Slam.

Already she remains the highest seed in her quarter of a wide-open women’s draw and it was evident the respect she held for her injured opponent, Brady, the 13th seed who had reached her first Grand Slam final at this year’s Australian Open.

“It's unfortunate because I have known Jenny very well, and she's such a nice person,” Gauff said. “I don't think if you ask every player on tour, no one is going to say anything bad about her because she's always laughing and joking around. So I just hope that by the time Wimbledon comes she'll be healed up and ready to compete at 100 per cent again.”

Gauff, who became the youngest American to crack the top 25 since Serena Williams 23 years ago, has now won 23 of her past 29 matches, including 15 of her past 18 on clay.

She next meets fellow former junior champion Ons Jabeur, a player seeded only one place below her but nine years her senior.

Gauff beat the Tunisian in their first two meetings last year, but lost on the green clay in Charleston in April this year.

Venus Williams, Coco Gauff, Roland-Garros 2021 first round©️ Cédric Lecocq/FFT

“She's a difficult player to play on any surface, but especially clay,” she said. “I have to be ready to run a lot. We all know she loves drop shots and doesn't really give you much of a rhythm.”

Jabeur has ventured this far twice before – to the quarter-finals at Melbourne Park in 2020 and to the fourth round in Paris seven months ago.

The 26-year-old is already mightily impressed at Gauff’s progress and has no doubt the impact the right people around her are having on her ascent.

“I think what makes it different with Coco is like mentally she's strong. She never gives up or lets the pressure get to her,” Jabeur said. “I think her being surrounded by probably Serena and Venus helps her a lot to get into the game and other matches.

“She's handling very well everything going on, and she deserves to be here. She deserves to even be a better ranked player. Also she's nice outside the court, so it's nice to have her.”