PARIS – It is easy to be in a rush when you reach the fourth round of Wimbledon at age 15, beating one of your idols, Venus Williams, in your opening match. It is easy to be in a hurry when the sponsors and the platform are already in place, and you have been hearing from experts and the voice inside your own head that you have what it takes to be a champion.
But tennis is a trickier game than most: a blend of the physical, the technical and the psychological with so much time to think between points and serves and so many tournaments, time changes and defeats to navigate.
Coco Gauff, even if she is only 18, has had to be more patient than she planned. But the young American’s potential and performances under pressure are beginning to converge. On Saturday, she will play in her first Grand Slam singles final, facing the No. 1 seed, Iga Swiatek, at the French Open for the title and the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.
“There’s a fine line between believing in yourself and almost pushing yourself too much,” Gauff said on Thursday after her semifinal victory, 6-3, 6-1, over Martina Trevisan, sounding, as usual, rather older than her years.
Gauff, the youngest Grand Slam singles finalist since Maria Sharapova won Wimbledon in 2004 at age 17, was comparing her expectations with those she had a season ago, when she reached the quarterfinals of the French Open. She found herself unable to manage the pressure and the critical points and flung her racket across the clay in frustration while losing to Barbora Krejcikova, the unseeded eventual champion.
“At that moment, I wanted it too much,” she said. “Given now, I definitely want it. Yes, who wouldn’t? But also, it’s not going to be the end of the world if it doesn’t happen for me. “
The odds, make no mistake, are still significantly against her. Gauff faces the toughest task available in women’s tennis.
Swiatek, 21, extended her winning streak to 34 matches in Thursday’s first semifinal by overwhelming the 20th-seeded Daria Kasatkina, 6-2, 6-1, in just over an hour.
That score and breakneck pace have been typical for Swiatek, the powerful and increasingly imposing Polish star. She has not lost a match since February and has beaten Gauff in their two previous matches in straight sets: winning, 7-6 (3), 6-3, on red clay in the semifinals of last year’s Italian Open and winning, 6- 3, 6-1, on a hardcourt in the round of 16 at this year’s Miami Open in March.
“She’s definitely the favorite going into the match on paper,” Gauff said. “But I think that going in, I’m just going to play free and play my best tennis. I think in a Grand Slam final, anything can happen. ”
Gauff’s ability to extend points with her speed and defensive skills could certainly force Swiatek into more errors than usual. Under the guidance of Diego Moyano, the veteran coach who joined her team in April, Gauff has improved her tactics, according to her father, Corey Gauff, who has been her main coach since childhood.
“Playing to her strengths means not rushing all the time,” Corey Gauff said in an interview on Thursday night. He added: “He’s able to communicate to her how it makes him feel on the other side of the net when she does something. He’s trying to get her to understand why she’s making the decision and what the impact is. And he’s been pretty effective compared to dad. We dads tend to be command and control, and that doesn’t always work. ”
But clay remains Swiatek’s favorite canvas. She won the French Open in 2020 at age 19. Gauff lost in the second round of that tournament to Trevisan, looking increasingly distraught as her double fault count rose. She finished with 19. On Thursday, she finished with just two, her lowest total of this Roland Garros.
“She’s learning to manage the emotions and understanding that double faults are a part of the game and that you don’t need to overreact,” Corey Gauff said.
Though Coco Gauff was only 4-3 on clay this year before Roland Garros, she has not lost a set in six matches. “I’m going to be honest,” she said. “This year I hadn’t had the best results going into this. So it wasn’t expected at all, really. ”
Gauff graduated from year-round, online high school earlier this spring, celebrating her achievement with a photo taken in front of the Eiffel Tower before the French Open. Corey Gauff believes that has helped her fly higher in Paris.
“That release when you finish high school or college is real,” he said. “She’s always had work to turn in, and it’s always in the back of your mind. I feel like this is the first tournament she’s played with no homework. ”
But she is still following current events, and on Thursday, after defeating Trevisan, she walked across the red clay for the now-customary signing of the television camera glass and decided, quite spontaneously she explained, to make a statement about last month’s elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in which 19 students and two teachers were killed.
“Peace. End Gun violence, ”Gauff wrote, drawing a heart next to her first name.
“That was just a message for the people back at home to watch and for people who are all around the world to watch,” she said, adding: “Hopefully it gets into the heads of people in office to hopefully change things.”
Gauff said she was influenced by athletes such as the former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and her fellow tennis star Naomi Osaka, who have been outspoken on social and cultural issues. But Gauff’s family also made it clear to her from an early age that she could have a reach far beyond the court.
“My dad told me I could change the world with my racket,” she said. “He didn’t mean that by like just playing tennis. He meant speaking out on issues like this. The first thing my dad said to me after I got off court: ‘I’m proud of you, and I love what you wrote on the camera.’ ”
Corey Gauff said he first told his daughter of the influence she could have when she was 6 or 7.
“I am glad she’s being aware of what’s going on around her,” he said. “She has a brother who is 8 years old and is in elementary school. It’s not hard for it to hit home. I’m glad she is aware and bringing the attention and empathy to it. She’s not just hitting the tennis ball. She’s a global citizen. ”
Still, tennis is certainly a focus at Roland Garros. Gauff, seeded 18th, is guaranteed to rise to a career-high No. 13 and could rise as high as No. 8 if she defeats Swiatek. She is not just aiming for the singles title. She and her partner, Jessica Pegula, are into the semifinals of the women’s doubles and will face their American compatriots Taylor Townsend and Madison Keys on Friday.
Gauff’s younger brothers – 8-year-old Cameron and 14-year-old Codey – are scheduled to arrive in Paris on Friday morning after traveling from the family’s home in Delray Beach, Fla.
“They are coming over for the singles final and hopefully the doubles final as well,” Corey Gauff said.
Cameron’s birthday is on Sunday.
“He’s coming to Paris as an 8-year-old and leaving as a 9-year-old,” Corey Gauff said with a chuckle.
Cameron’s big sister has a chance to leave as a Grand Slam champion.