How much is there to say about a professional athlete who is a few weeks shy of her 16th birthday? Well, if that athlete is Coco Gauff, the far-too-mature-for-her-age teenager from Delray Beach, Fla., there’s enough. In the span of 8-9 months, this wonderfully gifted athlete has gone from high school teenager to international celebrity. Gauff is now a media darling, and the toast of a sport AND a country hungry for someone to come along with her talent and charisma.
So what makes Gauff the player that she is?
Much has been written about Coco's genes, and I will be the first to admit that she’s got some great athletic DNA. Both of her parents were gifted D-1 athletes, and they passed on to Coco not only the innate ability to excel at sports (her hand/eye coordination is a thing of beauty), but also the love of competition. That is not a trait that can necessarily be learned. Some really gifted athletes don’t also have the ability to compete without getting nervous or losing focus. Coco, however, doesn’t appear to get nervous. Or she is so confident in her abilities that there isn’t much for her to get nervous about. Either way, she has the ability to maintain her focus, actually enjoy when she wins, and is genuinely disappointed, rather than angry or upset, when she doesn’t.
Here’s how you can tell, on the tennis court. Watch her reaction at certain really important, signature moments in the middle of a match. The 7th and 9th games are usually tell-tale moments of inflection, and can often be barometers of what is happening and what is to come. Gauff doesn’t change her game at those important moments. That's the way that champions play. Her weakness now is her second serve, and it’s important to realize that she likely won’t have a truly mature second serve for another few years. All-time greats such as Chris Evert, Bjorn Borg, and Steffi Graf needed a lot of work on that particular shot, even after they started winning titles.
It’s hard for a teenager to realize that in order to control the second serve, the player must hit the ball harder, because, by definition, you want to impart as much spin on the second serve as possible in order to control it, because spin controls the ball, period. Most players Coco’s age will try to control the ball by hitting it softer, and that will just take away any possible control the player could, in fact, put on the shot. Spin and speed are opposites, so the harder you hit the ball on the serve (if it is being done correctly) the more spin you put on the ball. The more spin on the ball, the more control you have. Placement of the shot comes last.
(Neal's tennis tip: When faced with a break point, hit your second serve harder to control it!)
Wanna really find out what’s happening in a player’s mind? Watch them trying to serve out a set or a match. It’s 5-4, and your guy is serving to win the set. We call that “serving out the set.” Does your player, or Coco, in particular, get that first serve in? Is she willing to take 10%-20% of the pace with which she hits normal first serves, off, just to make sure that her first serve goes in? Is she willing to hit her “normal” second serve as a first serve just to start the point off? Is she willing to use her first serve simply as a means to put the ball in play? Will she tell you later that she remembers that point (or shot) in the match, and her intent was simply to put the ball in play? Will she explain that she wasn’t trying to set up a winning shot, but she simply wanted to start the point and work her way to be in position where she could recognize a “hole” in her opponents’ groove, and that she would attack her opponent when the “hole” presented itself?
Gauff’s response and attitude in regard to her recognition of what to do, both when and where, are all very clear. Coco has not only been taught well, but she has strong instincts with regard to recognition of game, set, and match inflection points while she is competing. She may not even know what’s going on, it’s so natural for her.
In pressure situations, if she’s biting her fingernails, wiping her temple with an incessant number of towels, of if she’s letting the shot clock roll down to 4, 3, 2….etc., she’s in trouble and trying to figure her way out. But more often than not, Coco is not in trouble, she is commanding the match, and she's looking like she's having fun doing it.