In the final game, the one that delivered Coco Gauff into a first major final against World No.1 Iga Swiatek (Saturday, 3 p.m. in Paris/9 a.m. ET), she fully displayed the breathtaking skill set she’s acquired at the age of 18.
Point 1: Pushing Martina Trevisan back behind the baseline with a big forehand, Gauff brings her to net with a cruel and crafty drop shot – and, with a backhand volley, lobs it over Trevisan for a clean winner.
Point 2: After a rally of 13 shots, featuring big, side-to-side groundstrokes, a suddenly stationary Gauff flicks a delicate backhand drop shot. Trevisan, frozen, never crosses the baseline.
Point 3: A thundering crosscourt forehand makes it 40-love, giving Gauff three match points.
Point 4: A big serve down the T overpowers Trevisan, who sends a forehand return well long.
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After the match, reporters asked Gauff 16 questions, among them, regarding her choice of music coming on court, her world view, Trevisan’s extended grunts and the Queen of England’s Platinum Jubilee. Only one specifically referred to what she needed to do to beat Swiatek. Her answer:
“I think definitely capitalize on the opportunities I’m given,” Gauff said. “She’s not going to give you much. Watching her play, I think she does a great job of like changing direction and hitting angles off the court. She’s always hitting winners. I think going into the match I’m going to try to be aggressive at the right moments and patient at the right moments.”
To help fill in those X/O gaps, we have some expert assistance. Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver (with 20 major doubles titles together) weigh in on the areas that could help put Gauff over the top.
What, specifically, does Coco need to do to win?
Martina Navratilova: Swiatek takes that second serve early – and eats it for lunch. So Coco needs to get a lot of first serves in, going for the bigger second serve and hope for not too many double faults. She needs to look to not play too much defense; she needs to be aggressive. Hug the baseline, take the ball early. She can’t hope that Swiatek will beat herself – that’s never going to happen. She’s got to take some chances.
Pam Shriver: Her two weakest links in the last couple of years are her forehand and the serve. I feel like Coco’s backhand, generally, is there. Same for her footspeed. I feel like her will and her competitive spirit is there. So, honestly, if it comes down to two shots, it’s going to be the two things we’ve all been talking about. Can the serve and the forehand perform at the highest level?
How has her game improved from a physical standpoint?
Pam Shriver: I still think she’s still a couple of years away from her physical prime. I don’t many 18-year-olds who have already hit their physical prime, but I do think she has a lot of physical attributes at 18 that most 18-year-olds don’t have – with her speed, strength and size. But she’s learning to be a complete tennis player. She’s learning to work the points. She’s not pulling the trigger too soon in the rally because maybe she’s afraid that the forehand might break down. I feel like she has a confidence that the forehand can hold up. On clay, you have to have the rallies that last a long time, and she’s shown she can hang.
Martina Navratilova: I think she’s just growing into her body. She can still beef up a little bit, but not much more. She’s about right, I think. At 5-foot-9, she’s taller than a lot of the other players, so her physique isn’t a disadvantage. But most of all, I think she just understands the game better. How to set up points, when to go for the bigger shots. She really cleaned up her forehand. Her strike zone was all over the place and now she has more clarity on where she needs to be to hit that forehand and because of that she’s making fewer errors and hitting a bigger shot. That’s the biggest improvement that I’ve seen, and it gives her confidence to implement a game plan. When you have confidence in your game, you can wait for the right shot.
How important is her movement?
Martina Navratilova: I remember seeing her back in Plantation, Florida, in a junior tournament. She was so fast then – I was like `Wow, when this girl gets it together, watch out.’ She takes long strides, but she’s got nice footwork as well. She got enough of it growing up, so she’s natural mover on clay. You have to get that sliding into the shot down, so you can recover for the next shot, and she does that as well as anybody.
Pam Shriver: I mean, great movement against Swiatek is vital. When you observe her during this streak, she thrives on getting the opponent on the run and then, they either can’t last – or they can’t get there. Or they just make a bad decision because they’re under such stress. I actually think Coco won’t mind the running. I feel like the long rallies where she has to use her legs and lungs and cover court, Coco’s actually quite happy doing that.
What role has doubles played in her rise?
Pam Shriver: I think doubles has really helped her game. For her to have played last year’s US Open doubles final – the same weekend that Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez played in the singles final. I think that was really good for her to be part of that finals weekend. I did that doubles final. When she lost, she threw her racquet. She actually did some un-Coco-like behaviors. I think that showed her disappointment and maybe something like, `I can’t believe that relatively unheralded two teenagers are in the US Open singles final before I’ve gotten there.’ It reminds me a little bit of what Venus might have been through when Serena won her first major in 1999 – and then Venus came back and won two the next summer.
Martina Navratilova: Doubles, you have to hit volleys – whether you want to or not. She’s got the nose for the ball, she likes to move to the ball. She likes to poach and hit a screamer volley. All that stuff gives you confidence to do it in singles. If she’s up at the net in singles, she has the proper technique. You scramble in doubles more than singles. You end up in parts of the court that you normally don’t. Doubles gets you more comfortable when you’re hitting uncomfortable shots.
Emotionally where do you see Gauff?
Martina Navratilova: Her speech after the semifinal was great. She’s so aware of her social situation – the issues we face today – and is not afraid to talk about it. So playing a tennis match compared to that? For me, when I defected [from Czechoslovakia], the easiest thing was to play tennis. The defecting was the hard part. In America these days, particularly in the Black community, the things you have to deal with, it’s so difficult. Playing tennis is a great escape and opportunity. The more you appreciate it, as Coco clearly does, it takes the pressure off even more on the tennis court. So she can actually enjoy playing.
Pam Shriver: I think she’s in a great mental place. I went to her [post-semifinals] press conference. To hear her tell the story of how she was too revved up, couldn’t see the big picture. I think maybe losing at the Australian Open was an ah-ha moment. She was so pressing to have her great result right after the two teens got to the US Open final. It backfired and she didn’t play that well in Australia. Now I feel like enough time has passed and she realizes she’s just a better player than either Raducanu or Fernandez, more equipped. So it kind of makes sense that this has happened. That’s why I don’t count her out.
So … can Gauff beat Swiatek?
Pam Shriver: I never count anybody out in a major final. Especially somebody who has matured in the past three years. On court, off court … who has the speed, the weapons, the motivation, the team behind her. I don’t count her out. I mean, no kidding, Swiatek is a clear and considerable favorite. But … if Iga has a subpar day and Coco steps in on all of those mid-court balls, on second serves, Coco’s got her legs, she can get to a ton of balls that most players can’t get to. So, yes, she definitely can, but she’s a clear underdog.
Martina Navratilova: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, she’s gone through the field pretty confidently. If she plays her best tennis, she’s got the game to bother anybody. She’s certainly evolved quite a bit this last year. If she just plays her game, she can definitely get under Swiatek’s skin because more balls will be coming back. I would say, 70-30, Swiatek. But it’s completely doable.