Coco Gauff enters US Open as a favorite after working with Brad Gilbert

When Brad Gilbert left for Washington, D.C. in late July, he packed for a week because there was no expectation of what was in store beyond an agreement to work with Coco Gauff on a two-day trial basis.

Gauff came into that event trying to get out of what was clearly a rough patch. Bearing tremendous expectations ever since she announced herself as a potential star at age 15, Gauff wanted more out of her game than winning a couple of matches and then losing to top-10 players at the business end of tournaments. A first-round loss at Wimbledon had hammered home that something needed to change.

Gilbert, 62, is one of the uniquely gifted minds in tennis. He fashioned a successful, top-10 playing career out of less natural talent than his peers and explained much of how he did it in a 1993 book called “Winning Ugly” that remains a must-read for all tennis players on the mental side of the game. Then he went into coaching, notably working with Andre Agassi when he won six of his eight Grand Slam titles.

At Wimbledon, Gilbert was working for ESPN just as he has for many years when Gauff’s agent reached out to set up a meeting with her and her parents.

“We just talked for like an hour, and I told them some of the things I thought I could help them with,” Gilbert told USA TODAY Sports.

Gilbert got the signal from the Gauff camp that they were ready to move forward shortly before Washington, which he had already planned to attend to do some clinics and promotional work for the tournament. But there was no way to know whether it would just be a short stint or something more long-term.

A month later, he still hasn’t been home.

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That’s because the partnership between Gilbert and the 19-year-old Gauff, along with another coach Pere Riba who was hired shortly before Wimbledon, has yielded a remarkable run of success that will carry her into the US Open as one of the favorites.

After winning Washington for the biggest title of her career, Gauff had another good quarterfinal run in Montreal (losing 7-5 in the deciding set to No. 3 Jessica Pegula) and then won an even bigger title last week in Cincinnati including her first win over No. 1 Iga Świątek in eight tries.

“I think now I’m going in with a lot more confidence,” Gauff said. “I feel like no matter the score line in the match, I can be able to problem-solve and troubleshoot my way out. I know I can win matches not playing my best game now. I think I wasn’t playing my best in every single match in D.C. and Cincinnati, it’s impossible. I do feel I’m much more confident in my B or C game.”

Coco Gauff celebrates after the victory over Karolina Muchova during the women's singles final of the Western and Southern Open.

Coco Gauff celebrates after the victory over Karolina Muchova during the women’s singles final of the Western and Southern Open.

It’s always a tricky thing in tennis to portion out credit or blame to anyone besides the player when there’s a change in someone’s form. Just like any other sport, everything matters, from practice to scouting to pre-match preparation. But at the end of the day, only the player can go out on the court and execute.

At the same time, it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that players’ results have improved − often immediately − after working with Gilbert. It happened with Agassi, who similarly hired him on a trial basis that lasted eight years, and again with Andy Roddick, who hired Gilbert in June of 2003 and won the U.S. Open a couple of months later.

“I see a different Coco Gauff,” said ESPN commentator Chris Evert, who won the U.S. Open six times among her 18 Grand Slam titles. “He has been one of the most accomplished coaches out there over the last 30 years, and I think that has given her an edge that she didn’t have before. Her attitude and I just think her confidence now has grown to the point where I firmly believe that she believes that she can win it.”

Gilbert has seemingly changed a lot in Gauff’s game by not changing much at all so far. The forehand technique that has let her down in big matches? You can’t change that over a short stretch in the middle of the season, and he’s not talking much about it either.

Instead, there have been small adjustments − some positioning things, some footwork things, and it appears Gauff has committed to hit bigger on her first serve. Gilbert said they’re also doing some in-match coaching from the stands, which is now allowed at all the tournaments but was something Gauff hadn’t taken advantage of before.

“It’s always about the player and trying to help make small little tweaks, not major changes, especially when you’re starting on the fly,” Gilbert said. “A couple things with Coco that were most evident, she’s got a great team around her and she had a great team in place, and her parents have done an amazing job. But I think more than anything is she has the right attitude. All she’s thinking about is wanting to get better. She’s so dedicated and professional, it’s incredible.”

The tennis world has been waiting for Gauff’s game to be unlocked the way it was the last few weeks. Though superstardom seemed inevitable for her after making the fourth round at Wimbledon in 2019, it was unclear over the last couple of years whether she was destined for a historic career or merely a very good one.

To be clear, there was nothing wrong with Gauff. At 19, she was a fixture in the top-10 and had even made a French Open final last year. Her gifts were obvious, starting with a top-shelf backhand and elite speed around the court.

But the bar for achievement at the highest level is winning Grand Slams, and through the first part of this year it seemed she had slipped into a tier well behind Swiatek, Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina, all of whom have major titles.

Gauff still doesn’t have one, of course. But winning Washington and Cincinnati − and the way she came through some clutch situations − makes it seem much closer to happening than it was a few weeks ago.

“For me with BG, it’s just really I think I have a lot more confidence in my game,” she said. “He’s a very relaxed guy, and sometimes I’ll be practicing with another player and it’s 30-all or deuce and he’ll say something completely random. It’s things like that that make me realize that tennis is serious but it’s not as serious as my head makes it out to be, and I should enjoy it.

“I think the last couple weeks I’ve had fun in the wins and losses. He’s gotten me to have fun in those tough moments and embrace the hardships of tennis.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: US Open: Coco Gauff a clear favorite after working with Brad Gilbert

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