After graduating from online high school, Coco Gauff is in a new phase of her tennis career, and she is marking the occasion at the French Open in her favorite city.
She has long had precocious power and speed, which she underscored by reaching the fourth round of Wimbledon at age 15. Three years later, she is playing with less exuberance and more patience. And on Tuesday, on the same Philippe Chatrier Court where she lost her cool a year ago amid errors and clear frustration, she kept it together impressively, defeating Sloane Stephens, 7-5, 6-2, to reach her first Grand Slam singles semifinal.
Gauff, 18 and seeded No. 18, will face Martina Trevisan, an unseeded Italian, who will also be playing in her first major semifinal. Trevisan defeated 17th-seeded Leylah Fernandez, 6-2, 6-7 (3), 6-3, on Tuesday.
“I feel so happy right now; words cannot explain,” Gauff said in her on-court interview. “Last year in the quarterfinals was a tough loss for me, and I think that match really made me stronger, to better prepare for moments like today and the moments I will face in the next round.”
A year ago, Gauff faced Barbora Krejcikova, a then-unseeded doubles specialist, in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros and lost, 7-6 (6), 6-3. She failed to convert five set points in the opening set, made unforced errors by the bunch and uncharacteristically destroyed her racket with three angry blows to the red clay as she fell behind in the second set.
Krejcikova went on to win the title, and Gauff had to work through her regrets: trying to separate the player from the person, an approach she shared with the crowd after her victory over Stephens.
“I believe in myself, but I think when I was young, like even last year, I was kind of too focused on trying to fulfill other people’s expectations,” she said. “I think you should just enjoy life. I know no matter how good or bad my career is, I think I’m a great person.”
Gauff, who is from Delray Beach, Fla., has long been identified as a potential superstar, and with good reason. At 13, she was the youngest U.S. Open girls’ singles finalist in history. She won the French Open girls’ title at age 14, a year before her breakthrough run in 2019 as a qualifier at Wimbledon, where she defeated one of her role models, Venus Williams, in her first main-draw match at the All England Club.
Unlike some teen prodigies, Gauff did not soar to the top of women’s tennis in a hurry. Her progress has not been linear, but she is in new territory now in the final four of the French Open on a gritty surface that perhaps suits her best.
She can extend points like few players in the game with her quickness and defensive skills, and can also finish them with her terrific two-handed backhand and increasingly with her forehand, long her weaker wing. She was far from perfect against Stephens, making 18 winners to 23 unforced errors, including six double faults. But she played the critical points better, rarely going for a winner from a compromised position. Instead, she patiently worked her way to the opening while the unseeded Stephens struggled to maintain her consistency, mixing forehand winners with untimely mistakes and several gaffes at the net.
Stephens, a former U.S. Open champion, has had great success on clay, reaching the French Open final in 2018, where she lost to Simona Halep. But she had not won a clay-court match this season before arriving unseeded at Roland Garros.
“I would have liked to play better today, but that doesn’t take anything away from the work she has put in obviously to reach this point,” Stephens said of Gauff.
Stephens, 29, is now based in the Boston area, but she was long based in South Florida, like Gauff and her family, and knew them well enough to attend Gauff’s 10th birthday party. She has long been a role model for Gauff, and she defeated her in the second round of the U.S. Open last year in their only previous meeting on tour.
“I’m glad today was different,” Gauff said. “Honestly, I just told myself to stay mentally there. I knew there were some shots I probably should have made and some shots she gets in the court that probably no other player gets in the court.”