For much of the past year, one of Coco Gauff’s clearest goals has been to grow and advance at her own pace, ignoring all of the hype and expectation. But Gauff is 18, a high-school graduate as of just over a week ago, and on Tuesday she moved into her first grand-slam semi-final at the French Open.
With a solid performance under immense pressure, she was too strong for her friend and fellow American Sloane Stephens, winning 7-5, 6-2. Gauff will have an enormous opportunity of reaching the final as she faces the unseeded Martina Trevisan of Italy, who upset Leylah Fernandez 6-2, 6-7 (3), 6-3 as the Canadian struggled with an injury to her right foot.
Gauff and Stephens, 29, go back a long time. As Gauff was growing up surrounded by hype, Stephens watched as she grew from a precocious eight-year-old to an adult with ample experience on the tour. She would attend some of Gauff’s birthday parties and they know each other’s families well. Here they played with so much on the line. This pitted two of the very best athletes in the game against each other, but Gauff outworked Stephens in the numerous long rallies and remained solid as each tried to find a way through the other’s defences. She served well when she most needed to and she brought Stephens forward with regular drop shots, demonstrating the variety that has become a central part of her game.
Most of all, Gauff struck her forehand as well as she has done in any of her big matches. Throughout her young career, Gauff’s forehand has become a big target for all players, the aim to rush her elaborate swing with depth and pace, but it was Gauff frequently pushing Stephens back with her heavy topspin while constantly looking to dictate and finish points.
This time last year, Gauff reached her first grand slam quarter-final in Paris, where she faced the eventual champion Barbora Krejcikova. In the first set, Gauff had multiple set points that she failed to convert before she mentally fell away. This week, Gauff has referenced that match numerous times as one of the most important steps in her growth, explaining that she has learned not to panic in those moments.
In a tense second set that included several tight games on her serve, a long break after a spectator fell ill and two double-faults as she failed to serve out the match at 5-1, Gauff took those lessons to heart and she remained composed throughout, shrugging off the pressure to continue her march through the draw without dropping a set.
In her post-match interview, Gauff was asked by former champion Mats Wilander about the hype that has followed her since she was a child. Her response reflected the perspective she has garnered in her three years at the top . “Obviously I believe in myself,” she said. “Even last year, I think I was too focused on trying to live up to other people’s expectations of me. Just enjoy life. No matter how good or how bad my career is, I think I’m a great person, and that’s a message to all young players. Your results, or your job, or how much money you make doesn’t define you as a person. As long as you love yourself, who cares what anyone else thinks?”