Coco Gauff walks onto the court in the middle of the day. The stadium is half-full, if that.
So far, she mostly takes care of her main business in a little over an hour. A couple of television interviews follow her warm-down. Not much more than that. Sometimes there are just two or three journalists at her news conferences. In the evening, she barely gets noticed while wandering the streets of Melbourne on her way to dinner, whether or not she’s wearing a baseball hat and sunglasses.
“Definitely more chill,” Gauff said the other day about her experience in this tournament compared with the last Grand Slam she played, and won, at the U.S. Open in New York in September.
Remember those nights when Gauff would kick off the evening sessions with thrilling, nail-biting wins? Three of her first four matches went to three sets. Twice she lost the first set. The crowd of nearly 24,000 at Arthur Ashe Stadium would explode nearly every time she won a point and will her to victory.
Then whatever boldface tennis name was conducting the on-court interview would hand over the microphone and let Gauff rile up the crowd with her version of the ‘stay tuned for Novak Djokovic’ message. Hundreds of players had entered the tournament. She owned it from start to finish, the 19-year-old debutante coming out as never before, celebrities seated courtside for her matches. Jimmy Butler. The Obamas. Her name on the lips of nearly everybody on the grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
Four months later, life could not be more different for Gauff in Melbourne, and not in the way that one might predict. Sure, she’s on some billboards. It’s been that way for four years now, since that breakout roll she got on at Wimbledon when she was just 15.
Her game hasn’t changed much. She tweaked her serve slightly last month with some help from Andy Roddick, making the motion a little shorter and tossing the ball from a higher position, though it’s barely noticeable. “Maybe it’s slightly abbreviated,” said Pam Shriver, who has been watching Gauff throughout from her junior days. “But not much difference.”
The big switch is that while she is one of the biggest stars in the sport, Gauff is cruising into the quarterfinals practically under the radar, despite not dropping a set, and barely allowing her opponents to be competitive.
“She’s young but very experienced because she’s been around so long,” said Marta Kostyuk of Ukraine, who has the daunting task of facing her in the last eight Tuesday.
She has replaced the neon, tennis-ball-yellow outfit with a shade that more closely resembles the dulled yellow of a traffic light. There are no hordes of Gen-Z girls following her around and begging for selfies. Her doubles partner, Jessica Pegula, pulled out of that competition, so she isn’t packing field courts and smaller venues on her off days from singles.
Her matches, scheduled for prime time in the U.S., are ending so quickly, with so little energy expended, that she’s doing cardio workouts or hitting sessions after they are done. With so little tension during the matches, there’s almost no back-and-forth with her coach, Brad Gilbert, which is rather a miracle given that, well, let’s just say it takes a lot to keep Gilbert quiet.
Then come the media obligations and then, by the middle of the afternoon, Gauff is trying to figure out how to fill the rest of her day.
“Go to the movies, I don’t know, read a book or something,” she said Sunday, a couple of hours after she’d beaten Magdalena Frech of Poland, 6-1, 6-2 in 63 minutes. “It’s only, like, 3pm. It’s definitely a weird feeling.”
She saw Poor Things last week. She was planning to see The Iron Claw, a biopic about the professional wrestler Kevin Von Erich, on Sunday evening.
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There are some very logical explanations for this dynamic.
Gauff has had a massive impact at all the other Grand Slams. She had the British from that first win over Venus Williams on Centre Court at Wimbledon when she was 15. Very dangerous on clay, she was a French Open finalist in 2022. The U.S. Open has been a happy place since she made the finals of the girls’ tournament when she was 13.
As a professional, the Australian Open is the one Grand Slam where Gauff has never played a major role. This is the first time she has made the quarterfinals in singles and the Aussies spend the first part of the tournament obsessing through the afternoons and evenings over their own, while they are still competing. She plays while crowds are still arriving at Melbourne Park, so her matches take place in the American evening, which makes ESPN very happy.
Fans here know her, like her, and cheer for her. There are scattered yells of “Let’s go Coco,” in quiet moments between points. She received the ultimate compliment on Sunday when Rod Laver took his front-row seat in the arena named for him just before she served at 4-1. She thanked him for coming afterwards, saying it was an honor to play in front of him.
But she’s not yet “a thing” here, so to speak, which makes for some quiet days. Not that she is complaining.
Gauff and her team have always urged her to embrace free time. They turn down dozens of sponsorship offers to minimize her obligations and keep her mind clear. Focus on the tennis and the money and opportunities will be there.
“Playing the long game,” her agent, Alessandro Barel Di Sant Albano of Team8, the agency that Roger Federer co-launched, reiterated on Sunday.
Gauff has taken that approach onto the court. She pays special attention to 30-all points when her opponent is serving, even if she is already up a service break, looking to shorten matches wherever she can, not just for this tournament, but for years in the future.
“I‘m 19 now, but I’m not always going to be able to bounce back as quick physically or mentally,” Gauff said Sunday.
Still, being a prodigy can have its pitfalls.
Gauff said she put tremendous pressure on herself to win a Grand Slam as a teenager ever since that Wimbledon breakout in 2019. Last summer, with less than one year to go, she lost in the first round at Wimbledon to Sofia Kenin, the 2020 Australian Open champion. No shame in that, but she took it hard.
“It sucked,” Gauff said. But, she added, “the world didn’t end. The sun still shines. I still have my friends and family. I realized that losing isn’t all that bad and that I should just focus on the battle and the process and enjoy it. When it’s 5-5 in the third set, enjoy that battle instead of thinking, ‘What if I lose?’”
With just one Grand Slam left in 2023, she figured it was time to start planning for 2024. She wanted to bring in a big-name coach. Gilbert was interested. He joined her team in mid-summer, an “O.G”, as she refers to him (“original gangster”), with strange taste in music (Tom Petty) and candy (Jolly Ranchers).
Gilbert helped her focus on her strengths – her backhand, her powerful serve, her unmatched court coverage and endurance – rather than her weakness, which was her forehand. He helped her learn how to disguise it, giving it more shape and depth, extending points and turning matches into track meets, which she has excelled at since she was a child.
Six weeks later, she’d won her first Grand Slam, six months before she turned 20.
Now she’s the one feeling like the veteran and the “O.G.”
“I’m looking at the other girls on tour who are 16, and now coming up,” she said Sunday. “Like, they just feel so young and I just feel so old.”
Then she caught herself.
“I know,” she said. “I’m not that old.”
(Top photo: Martin Keep/AFP via Getty Images)