By Richard Pagliaro | Friday, May 26, 2023
Coco Gauf she is not psychic, but she plays with anticipation during Roland Garros training sessions.
The 2022 Roland Garros runner-up knows the ball is coming towards her forehand and believes the barrage makes her weaker wing a weapon on clay.
The sixth-ranked Gauff has seen a steady stream of forehand strikes during this clay court campaign.
This season, Gauff has struggled for a 3-3 singles record on clay courts, though she teamed with Jessica Pegula to score valuable match plays in three consecutive WTA 1000 doubles finals in Miami, Madrid and Rome.
In singles, opponents can push Gauff into forehand errors as her expansive tackle takes time to generate a forehand, unlike her tighter backhand backhand.
Additionally, Gauff’s extreme Western grip on her forehand means that her opponent sometimes slips with short cuts and drop throws, as it can be difficult to kick low balls with such an extreme grip.
Still, Gauff believes her forehand can be a weapon on clay for two main reasons:
1. Can play high, heavy topspin to support opponents behind the baseline, which is a significant advantage when many opponents hit much flatter and feel uncomfortable fending off a high ball.
2. Knowing every opponent you face is a huge advantage, says Gauff, because he knows where the balls are going before the opponents have finished their swing.
“I mean, obviously the forehand is something I need to improve on, but especially on clay I feel like it’s one of my weapons,” Gauff told the media in her pre-tournament speech in Paris. “Last year, I mean, I scored a lot using that heavy forehand, and I think that’s something I’m continuing this year.”
After beating Gauff 6-3, 6-0 in Madrid earlier this month, Paula Badosa summed up her strategy simply: Get Gauff to beat her with a forehand.
“He has a crazy backhand, a very good serve, especially the first,” Badosa said of Gauff. “More forehand, of course, mainly because her backhand is very good and when you have a place like this you just go there, but I just tried to go to her forehand.
“Sometimes just give it to her and make her like to do more of what she can do. And yes, that’s a bit of a tactic I can tell you now. I hope he doesn’t read this.”
Hall of Famer Arthur Ashe said, “I never strike a man’s weakness, you can use it for strength.”
A year ago, the 18-year-old Gauff moved masterfully, mixing a powerful forehand with a powerful instep with finishing backhand flats, becoming the youngest woman to reach a French Open final since Kim Clijsters in 2001, the youngest major finalist since Maria Sharapova stunned Serena Williams, winning the 2004 Wimbledon Championship and the youngest American to reach a Grand Slam singles final since 17-year-old Serena defeated world No. 1 Martina Hingis in the 1999 US Open final.
Seeded sixth, Gauff will begin her return to Roland Garros against Spain’s Rebecca Masarova in a potential quarter-final clash with world No. 1 Iga Świątek, a rematch of the 2022 final.
Admitting that her forehand is still a work in progress, Gauff said she intends to use the same French Open formula she used in last year’s rallies: Play a high topspin forehand on your opponent’s backhands to force them to counter-attack on the crosscourt, where can step on and break her two-handed weapon with a power ending on a point.
The question is, can Gauff repeat this game under pressure, especially when the opponent knows he’s coming?
“At the moment I feel my forehand is strong on clay. In all my practice matches, I obviously have an advantage,” said Gauff. “I know where they will play with me, and that’s a lot because some players don’t know that. I know exactly what they’re going to do, and now it’s just about getting it done.
“So I think in a way I’m using it more as a strength. Of course, it’s something I need to work on, but I need to work on everything. I think I hit a really good forehand in my last game. I think the backhand was the problem in my last game. I wouldn’t say “backhand”, but a lot of mistakes on this side. So that’s something I’m working on and we’ll see.
Image credit: Clive Brunskill/Getty