Quarterfinal berth swings French Open door wide open for Coco Gauff

Coco Gauff became an overnight sensation in 2019 after defeating Venus Williams in the first round of Wimbledon. She was a 15-year-old qualifier with little name recognition outside of tennis circles and had just convincingly pulled off the win over her childhood hero and five-time tournament champion.

Gauff's global celebrity grew as she recorded more wins at the All England Club. She became known for her dynamic play, fierce resolve and joyful celebrations. She cried tears of happiness after defeating Williams and jumped up and down and waved her hands wildly after a comeback victory in the third round over Polona Hercog as the adoring crowd roared. Gauff lost in the fourth round to Simona Halep, but her status as one of the sport's brightest young stars was secured.

Less than two years later, playing in the round of 16 at a Grand Slam for the third time, there were no tears or jubilation for Gauff at the match's conclusion. After dismantling Ons Jabeur, 6-3, 6-1, in just 53 minutes on Monday at the French Open to advance to her first major quarterfinal, Gauff no longer looked the teen just happy to be there. Instead, the seasoned veteran gave a measured leap as she made her way to the net, but didn't crack a smile.

While her magical run at Wimbledon was unexpected, even to Gauff, she now knows she belongs in the second week of Grand Slams.

"I think I was just more hungry for it," Gauff said about her quarterfinal berth. "I feel like in the past, I felt like I was satisfied with the run I made in the tournament, so maybe I feel like I came into the matches ... I guess, not as hungry. I know it's probably not a good thing to say, but it's the truth. But I think, with a lot of young players, I think we tend to get satisfied with just, you know, the small results -- not small results but certain results -- before we realize that we can really shoot for more.

"My message has always been 'Dream big and aim higher.' I think that today was honestly coming from that message of aiming higher."

The 17-year-old now is the youngest player to make a Grand Slam quarterfinal since 2006. And with more confidence than ever and a rediscovered love of the game after a challenging stretch due to the pandemic, she is hopeful she can go even further.

Gauff followed up her breakthrough at Wimbledon with a third-round appearance at the 2019 US Open and won her first career singles title in Linz before the year ended. She and doubles partner Caty McNally earned the trophy in Washington, D.C., in August that year and drew huge crowds for their US Open doubles matches.

There were no signs of a sophomore slump at the start of the 2020 season. Gauff upset reigning champion Naomi Osaka to advance to the fourth round at the Australian Open, and she and McNally -- known collectively as McCoco -- advanced to the quarterfinals in doubles. Gauff looked poised to take another step forward.

Of course, then the pandemic sidelined Gauff and her peers for five months, slowing her momentum. When the season resumed last August, Gauff said she struggled with the strict new restrictions. She lost in her opening-round match at the US Open and lost in the second round at the French Open, which had been moved to late September.

"Last year I was struggling a little bit," Gauff said. "Just finding, not finding motivation, but I would just say enjoying it, because you just go from the courts to the hotel, and it was not that fun for me, personally."

As the restrictions have begun to loosen, and players now are allowed one hour outside of their hotel rooms in addition to their time on the grounds at Roland Garros, Gauff is enjoying life on tour again. She has been able to explore, albeit briefly, many cities she had never been to.

"I know for some people an hour outside may seem like a small detail, but at least for me, it just means a lot to go out and get away ..." she said. "Because at the end of the day, we're in Paris, so you want to enjoy the city. We're in Rome. You know, we're in these nice cities, and you don't get to enjoy it."

Gauff said she believes her happiness off the court has translated to her recent success on it during the clay-court season. She made it to the quarterfinals in Charleston, and the semifinals in Rome, and she won the singles and doubles titles in Parma. She arrived in Paris brimming with self-belief and a career-high ranking of No. 25.

Gauff was seeded in a major for the first time, and her dominance on clay has continued. She has yet to drop a set throughout the fortnight. During her match against Jabeur, Gauff won 81% of her points on first serve and fired 15 winners to just nine unforced errors.

Perhaps most impressively, Gauff had no double faults in the match, something she has had issues with before. She had 19 double faults during her second-round loss at the 2020 French Open.

"I feel like all my matches have been, pretty, I don't know how to say it, but straightforward wins, like no crazy three sets and stuff," Gauff said after the match. "As we know, I have had a lot of those in the past. But I don't know, I just feel like this has been the most consistent tennis I have played at this level. Hopefully I can keep that going."

Gauff is always accompanied at events by her father, Corey, who doubles as her coach. Her mother, Candi, has joined her in Paris as well. Candi often stays home in Florida with Gauff's two younger brothers. Gauff said she has enjoyed having both parents on site, saying, "it just makes things light and fun," and the trio has been passing any downtime by playing Uno. Heading into Monday, the Gauffs had played exactly 37 hands. Always the competitor, Coco Gauff has been keeping track of the scores in the Uno matches. She proudly shared with the media that she has won 16 of those rounds.

"I'm in the lead right now," she said with a smile.

Up next for Gauff on the tennis court is Barbora Krejcikova, who defeated Sloane Stephens in the fourth round. The 25-year-old also will be looking for her first semifinal berth when the two play on Wednesday. The winner likely would face Iga Swiatek, the reigning champion, with a spot in the final on the line. Swiatek defeated Gauff, 7-6 (3), 6-3, in the Italian Open semifinals -- but Gauff hasn't lost a match since.

"She's playing really good, I've got to say," Jabeur said. "But you never know. Iga [Swiatek] is playing really well. It's gonna be an interesting matchup if they're going to meet in the semifinal. Honestly, if she's not gonna win it now, she's probably gonna win another time."

Having already achieved one of her goals for the 2021 season by clinching the final spot on the U.S. Olympic team with Stephens' loss, and projected to be just outside the top 20 in the next rankings, Gauff's French Open already has been a success.

With so many big names no longer in the draw -- No. 8 Swiatek is the only top-10 seed and only major champion remaining -- and an equally inexperienced quarterfinal opponent, the door is open for Gauff to take another monumental step forward. But after her win Monday, she wasn't concerned about who was left or what that could mean for her.

"I'm really just focused on the match ahead of me," Gauff said. "I don't want to think far. You have to focus on what's in front of you. I mean, yeah, that's really the only answer I have.

"So right now I'm focused on going to sleep tonight and winning the next Uno match, and then tomorrow we focus back on practice and then get ready for the quarterfinals."