Quite a trip to Paris in the springtime for 18-year-old American Coco Gauff: She celebrated graduating from high school -- an achievement saluted via social media by former first lady Michelle Obama -- and now is into the French Open quarterfinals for the second consecutive year.
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Learning as she goes, Gauff took control of a tight opening set against No. 31 seed Elise Mertens of Belgium on Sunday and grabbed the last eight games to pull away for a 6-4, 6-0 victory in the fourth round at Roland Garros.
"You're never going to play your best tennis in a Slam every moment of the match, but I think I'm getting better and better," said Gauff, who is seeded 18th at the clay-court major tournament, "and I think, mentally, I can't ask for much more from myself in each match."
Next up will be a match against Sloane Stephens, who returned to the French Open quarterfinals for the first time since 2019 by beating Jil Teichmann 6-2, 6-0. Stephens won the 2017 U.S. Open and was the runner-up at Roland Garros the next year. But she hasn't been a member of the final eight players at any major tournament since losing in the quarterfinals in Paris three years ago.
The other quarterfinal on the bottom half of the draw will be a meeting between left-handers: No. 17 Leylah Fernandez, a 19-year-old Canadian who reached the final at last year's US Open, against 59th-ranked Martina Trevisan of Italy, who also got to the quarterfinals in Paris two years ago.
Fernandez compiled more than twice as many winners, 35, as unforced errors, 17, and broke serve a half-dozen times to beat 20-year-old American Amanda Anisimova 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 on a chilly, windy day. Trevisan grabbed the last four games and eliminated Aliaksandra Sasnovich 7-6 (10), 7-5.
"Every time I step out on the court, I still have something to prove," said Fernandez, who was ranked only 73rd last September when she beat four-time major champion Naomi Osaka on the way to being the runner-up to Emma Raducanu at Flushing Meadows. "I still have that mindset I'm the underdog. I'm still young."
Gauff, of course, is even younger.
In 2021, she was the youngest French Open quarterfinalist in 15 years, but frittered away five set points in the opener of a loss to eventual champion Barbora Krejcikova.
That stuck with her Sunday, when she was in a back-and-forth first set against Mertens that was 4-all before Gauff got going. Afterward, she praised herself for staying calm in the moment.
"That was the biggest lesson I learned last year in my quarterfinal match. I had a couple set points, and I think I freaked out when some of those points didn't go my way," said Gauff, who delivered one around-the-net-post backhand on the run but ultimately lost that exchange. "Today, I didn't freak out when a couple of those important points didn't go my way."
Gauff burst onto the scene at Wimbledon in 2019 when she was 15 by becoming the youngest -- yes, there's that word again -- qualifier in tournament history, beating Venus Williams in the first round of the main draw and getting all the way to the fourth. Other Week 2 runs at major tournaments have followed.
She is proud of her success with schoolwork. She posted a series of pictures on Instagram of herself wearing her cap and gown and holding a diploma, the Eiffel Tower in the background.
A response from Obama, whom Gauff has met, was a nice surprise.
"I'm super thankful for that message. ... What really meant a lot: It wasn't about the tennis, it was about my education," Gauff said. "So I think that meant more to me."