Iga Swiatek continues to dominate Coco Gauff, but she's also ...

23 days ago
Coco Gauff
Iga Swiatek continues to dominate Coco Gauff, but she’s also making her a better player

“Against probably anybody else today, I would have won the match,” the American said following their Rome semifinal.

Serving at 4-4 in the first set against Iga Swiatek in Rome on Thursday, Coco Gauff looked and sounded confident. She reached 40-0 with an ace that touched down on the T, and followed it up with a forceful “Come on!” She seemed sure to hold and go up 5-4.

On the next point, Gauff got a look at a mid-court backhand. She had been pounding that shot relentlessly through the first eight games, leaping into it, taking it down the line, hitting winners with it—and, yes, making some errors, too. This time, she tried something different, a drop shot. She hit it cleanly, but not quite high enough, and it found the tape. The commentators calling the match agreed that it was a good miss, and that mixing it up would pay dividends for her in the long run. I thought the same thing at the time.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that now, and I doubt Gauff does, either. On the next point, at 40-15, she rushed and overhit a backhand into the net. At 40-30, Swiatek blocked a return back that was coming at her head, then fired a forehand winner to make it deuce. Then Gauff double-faulted two straight times to lose the game.

Swiatek had the break she was looking for, and we all know what happens after that—she runs away with the match. A few minutes later, she won the first set 6-4, and she went on to win the second 6-3. Gauff opened the door by a millimeter with that drop-shot miss, and Swiatek barged through it, the way No. 1 players tend to do.

I mention that moment not just because it was an inflection point in the match, but also because it shows how little margin for error Gauff has against Swiatek on clay. That’s true for virtually all of Swiatek’s opponents, but especially so for the American, who is now 1-10 against the Pole, and 0-4 on dirt. Iga is Coco’s mountain to climb, the biggest obstacle between her and a multi-Slam future.

This was their first meeting of 2024, and Gauff obviously came in with a strike-first game plan designed specifically for this opponent. She went bigger than normal on her serve. She leaned—or jumped—into her backhand, and wasn’t afraid to go down the line when she had the chance. She was just as aggressive with her forehand. Normally, Gauff tends to let this shot come to her, and ends up swinging at it defensively, and from too close to her body. This time she took it early, with a full cut, and aimed for the corners. For much of the day, Gauff gave as good as as she got with Swiatek from the baseline, which hasn’t often been the case in the past.

“I thought I played well the majority of the match,” Gauff said. “Against probably anybody else today, I would have won the match.”

“I wanted to be aggressive, which I felt like I did. I think I missed some balls in some clutch moments. That’s what being aggressive is. I think if I continue to play in this way, I’ll be more consistent in that.”

Playing better players makes you better: It’s one of the first laws of tennis improvement. Today you could see Swiatek forcing a better version of Gauff to the surface. One who relishes the chance to go after a forehand crosscourt, or power a backhand down the line, rather than relying on her defense and her speed to draw errors from her opponents. The one thing she might have down more often is throw in high balls to Swiatek’s backhand, a tactic that worked well for her last summer in Cincinnati.

“I mean, she's a great player,” Gauff said. “You have to play at the top of your game. I think I did that at moments. I think in the moments that mattered, I didn’t do it.”

Swiatek is also the master of the first-strike style that Gauff was trying to play today. While the match was closer than the 6-4, 6-3 score, Swiatek said she always felt like she could do what she wanted out there. Gauff’s aggression, in other words, didn’t bother her.

“It's nice to play a semifinal against a top player, kind of feel like you can play your game and enjoy that,” Swiatek said.

Gauff says she hopes to play Swiatek again at Roland Garros, and she’s right to want that. While Swiatek is knocking her out of tournaments and probably leaving her discouraged in the moment, she’s also making her a better player.

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