By Richard Pagliaro | Friday, May 26, 2023
Coco Gauff isn’t psychic, but she’s playing with prescience in Roland Garros practices.
The 2022 Roland Garros runner-up knows the ball is coming to her forehand—and believes that barrage is making her weaker wing a weapon on clay.
The sixth-ranked Gauff has seen a steady stream of shots to her forehand during this clay-court campaign.
Gauff has struggled to a 3-3 clay-court singles record this season, though she has gained valuable match play partnering Jessica Pegula to three consecutive WTA 1000 doubles finals in Miami, Madrid and Rome.
In singles play, opponents can rush Gauff into forehand errors as her expansive takeback requires time to generate her forehand in contrast to her more compact backhand backswing.
Additionally, Gauff’s extreme western grip on her forehand means opponent sometimes slide short slices and drop shots as digging out low balls can be challenging with that extreme grip.
Still, Gauff believes her forehand can be a weapon on clay for two main reasons:
1. She can play high, heavy topspin to back opponents up behind the baseline, that’s a significant advantage when many opponents hit much flatter and are uncomfortable fending off the high ball.
2. Knowing every opponent she faces is a massive edge, Gauff says, because she knows where the balls going before opponents complete their swing.
“I mean, obviously the forehand is something that I have to improve on, but on clay especially I feel like it’s one of my weapons,” Gauff told the media in her pre-tournament presser in Paris. “Last year, I mean, I have won a lot of points using that heavy forehand, and I think that that’s something I continue to do this year.”
After slamming Gauff, 6-3, 6-0 in Madrid earlier this month, Paula Badosa summed up her strategy simply: Make Gauff beat her with the forehand.
“She has crazy backhand, very good serve, especially first serves,” Badosa said of Gauff. “Of course going more to her forehand, most because her backhand is very good, and when you have like the spot there, you just go there, but I just tried to go to her forehand.
“Sometimes just give it to her and make her like do more what she can. And, yeah, that’s a little bit the tactic that I can say now. I hope she doesn’t read it.”
Hall of Famer Arthur Ashe famously said: “I never hammer a man’s weakness, you may play it into a strength.”
A year ago, an 18-year-old Gauff moved masterfully, mixed her high-bouncing heavy forehand with finishing flat backhand bolts becoming the youngest woman to reach the French Open final since Kim Clijsters in 2001, the youngest woman major finalist since Maria Sharapova stunned Serena Williams to take the 2004 Wimbledon championship and the youngest American woman to contest a Grand Slam singles final since a 17-year-old Serena knocked off world No. 1 Martina Hingis in the 1999 US Open final.
The sixth-seeded Gauff will open her Roland Garros return against Spaniard Rebeka Masarova with a potential quarterfinal clash with world No. 1 Iga Swiatek, in what would be a rematch of the 2022 final, looming.
Conceding her forehand is still very much a work in progress, Gauff said she’s aiming to apply the same French Open formula she used in rallies last year: Play the high, heavy topspin forehand to opponent’s backhands to force them to counter crosscourt where she can step in and crack her two-hander with point-ending power.
The question is: Can Gauff execute that play repeatedly under pressure particularly with opponent’s knowing it’s coming?
“Right now I feel like my forehand is a strength on clay. In all my practice matches, obviously I have the advantage,” Gauff said. “I know where they’re going to play me, which is a lot, as some players don’t know that. I know exactly what they’re going to do and now it’s all about executing it.
“So I guess in a way I’m using it more as a strength. Obviously it’s something I need to work on, but I have to work on everything. My last match I think I honestly hit my forehand well. I think the backhand was the problem in my last match. I wouldn’t say “the” backhand but a lot of mistakes on that side. So it’s something that I’m working on, and we’ll see.”
Photo credit: Clive Brunskill/Getty