PARIS -- Coco Gauff has been on a journey of self-discovery in Paris. She's figuring out what she calls her "transition into adulthood," in a city she calls her second home. She's trying to find the form that guided her to the final here last year. And she's trying to solve her forehand.
It's a lot to take in, alongside the unsociable hours required to keep tabs on her beloved Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. But for whatever reason, Paris seems to act as a healing balm for Gauff. Her story comes full circle as she prepares to face Iga Swiatek in the quarterfinals, the artist of her downfall in last year's final.
She finds the beneficial effects of Paris hard to pin down on one factor. She loves the city's architecture, history, food and joie de vivre, and it has a calming effect on her. "I just like walking around here," Gauff, 19, said. "I mind my business. I love walking around the city, I love people watching and the fashion is really cool here."
One thread through all she has said has been how eager she is to fine-tune herself. Paris is helping. "That comes through trial and error," she said before she'd taken to the court here. "I feel like for some reason, though, I always seem to find that in Paris. I don't know if it's the city or the vibe here that makes me a lot more at ease."
She has done her best to avoid talking about last year's final, a match she lost to Swiatek in straight sets 6-1, 6-3. The loss hurt -- and she has since admitted it took a fortnight to process. There are reminders here still a year on, despite her best efforts to move on. After her first-round win over Rebeka Masarova, she was asked about how she had managed to fight back from a set down to win 3-6, 6-1, 6-2. She said the mindset was "bleep last year's final, and bleep the first set." When asked to elaborate, she said it's a case of trying to live in the present and embracing the future rather than drowning in the past.
But until she reaches her next Slam final, that defeat remains an anchoring aspect of her recent narrative. Her 2023 hasn't been straightforward, a tale of stop-start inconsistency. She won the ASB Classic at the start of the year, then she crashed out in the fourth round of the Australian Open to Jelena Ostapenko and was left distraught by the result. Indian Wells ended at the quarterfinals to Aryna Sabalenka, and the clay season in the run-up to Roland Garros saw a series of second-round defeats.
This was all compounded by uncertainty behind the scenes. In early April, Gauff and coach Diego Moyano announced they had parted (Gauff later said the split was due to personal reasons on Moyano's side). Here in Paris, she is working with Patrick Mouratoglou -- Serena Williams' former coach and Holger Rune's current trainer -- alongside her father, Corey.
The Mouratoglou-Gauff partnership is for the clay season, with focus on that area of her game, which she knows opponents target. "Obviously the forehand is something I have to improve on, but on clay especially I feel like it's one of my weapons," she said in the run-up to this year's tournament.
After four wins in Paris, she was feeling even more confident.
"This week, in the last couple matches, my forehand has, I think, improved a lot, and I think it's gotten me to win a lot of points," she said on Monday. "I think [in] the last couple of matches that I have just become more and more comfortable being aggressive on it. But I think really it's more so something that I just have to continue to improve. I'll probably work on it more during the offseason, but right now I'm happy where my forehand is at."
We've seen signs of boldness at Roland Garros. In her first-round victory over Masarova she hit one winner essentially through the Spaniard in the third set. More often than not you'd see the player apologize for such an action, but not Gauff. "I didn't hit her with the ball, which is why I didn't say sorry," Gauff said matter-of-factly after.
Gauff's age has been bracketed with her journey since her breakthrough win against Venus Williams at Wimbledon in 2019. In October, when she faced Robin Montgomery in San Diego, it marked the first time she had played someone younger than her in singles on the tour. Here in Paris, when she faced 16-year-old Mirra Andreeva in the third round, Gauff was the seasoned pro in that pairing.
"Age is important to mention sometimes, but as a player and going through it, yes, it gets a little bit annoying," Gauff said after defeating Andreeva. "I feel like I'm the type of person, I don't need to be praised because of my age or anything. I prefer just to be praised because of my game."
You can sense she is learning as she goes along here. Her fourth-round 7-5, 6-2 win over Anna Karolina Schmiedlova was indicative of this jumbled season. Though there were moments of brilliance, she conceded two breaks of serve in the first set when up 5-2 as she struggled with the wind. At times she looked exasperated with some of her unforced errors -- letting out the odd scream when one misfired -- making 22 overall, with 10 on her forehand. But she still won in straight sets -- despite a bloodied knee from a fall -- and booked yet another spot in the final eight.
Her journey of self-discovery and realignment has led to the quarterfinals. And it's the toughest task of all up next: her nemesis Swiatek. In their six meetings to date, Swiatek has won every match without dropping a set.
"Since last year I've been wanting to play her here at this tournament," Gauff said after the fourth-round win. "I'm the type of mentality that if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. If you want to improve, you have to play the best. I think it would be almost cowardly to say that I want to not face the noise and not face the challenge, but I think that I'm up for it. I have improved a lot since last year, and she has too."
She'll rewatch last year's final from a scouting perspective but won't relive the disappointment. Instead, it's about learning and embracing the journey she's on. "I don't want to make the final my biggest accomplishment, I guess. I want to keep moving forward and keep reaching further heights."