PARIS – Prepping in the relative warmth of a gym before heading out with leggings and long sleeves to make her French Open debut against the tournament’s No. 9 seed, Coco Gauff got a pep talk from Dad.
“His goal was to become an NBA player, and he didn’t make it. He told me: ‘You’re living your dream. Not everybody gets to do that. Just have fun on the court.’ That really changed my perspective,” the 16-year-old Gauff recounted. “I was really nervous going into the match. That just calmed me down. I realized it’s just a tennis match. I’m doing some things that people wish they could do.”
On a rather unusual start to things at Roland Garros — postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic, Day 1 arrived in September instead of May, with only 1,000 spectators allowed instead of more than 30,000 as COVID-19 cases rise in France — Gauff offered the latest proof that she can do most of what she wishes to on a tennis court.
Using forehand slices to throw off her older, more experienced opponent, and unbothered by her own 12 double-faults, Gauff stayed steady at the most crucial moments to beat Johanna Konta 6-3, 6-3 and reach the second round. This was already Gauff’s fourth victory over an opponent ranked in the Top 20.
Such a far cry from last year’s French Open: Gauff failed to make it out of qualifying, while Konta was making her way to her third Grand Slam semifinal.
Soon after, Gauff had her breakthrough at Wimbledon, becoming, at 15, the youngest qualifier ever there on the way to the fourth round. She also made it to the fourth round at this year’s Australian Open, beating 2019 champion Naomi Osaka en route.
Only recently was there a bit of a bump in the road for Gauff: She lost four of five matches before arriving in Paris, including a first-round exit at the U.S. Open.
“When I’m on the court, I can act like I’m used to it," she said. "When I’m off the court, I’m just happy to be here.”