On Gauff, her forehand issues and why we can't help but talk about it.
Coco Gauff has a really bad forehand. I’m stating the obvious here, I know. It feels like not a week goes by where Gauff’s forehand isn’t discussed at length everywhere. At this point, it can feel like a chore to bring it up again because really, it’s beating a dead horse at times. The only thing we ever talk about is Coco Gauff and her forehand woes.
But we still need to discuss it. Gauff has points from last year’s French Open to defend in Paris next month, ones that make up a large chunk of her top 10 ranking. It’s a huge moment in Gauff’s season not only because of Roland Garros but her opportunities on the clay.
On this surface, Gauff has faired better with that forehand; a slower court where she isn’t rushed and the technical deficiencies present are harder to expose and punish. It’s not exactly been going to plan, however. She has won just 2 matches since Indian Wells (1 in Miami, 1 in Stuttgart in a final set tiebreak, 1 in Madrid to a qualifier) and the losses have been bad.
With a very concerning run of form and so much at stake in the French capital, all eyes are going to increasingly turn to Coco Gauff. They’re also probably going to turn away again when they see that forehand. I cannot provide detailed technical analysis of her problems- plenty of people better placed to do that have offered their time to the issue- but I can discuss the problems it causes.
You don’t need to know about tennis technique to see Gauff’s issue and know what a big problem it is for her. So, let’s do what always happens when Coco Gauff is mentioned: let’s have some forehand discourse.
Gauff’s season did actually start relatively well with a title, but she won Auckland without facing a player in the top 50. She made the 4th Round of the Australian Open, but lost in straight sets to Ostapenko. Since then, she’s had a loss to Kudermetova in Doha, a 6-4, 6-2 loss to Iga Swiatek in under an hour and a 6-4, 6-0 loss to Sabalenka just over an hour at Indian Wells. There have also been 2 losses to Anastasia Potapova in Miami and Stuttgart. It was the latter loss that prompted me to finally write this article; Gauff hit 38 unforced errors on her forehand. 38!
What’s really concerning is that she’s not even a particularly aggressive player. To be clear: no one should be hitting nearly 40 forehand errors in a straight sets loss, but if someone like Jelena Ostapenko- who is almost always trying to hit big and go for winners- is committing more errors, it makes some sense. Gauff is much more of a defensive counterpuncher. Losing that match to a top 30 opponent, those stats are dire.
That loss has been followed up by a 6-3, 6-0 loss to Paula Badosa in Madrid this week in the 3rd round. Badosa has been having a great clay court season so far, but Gauff is a top 10 player. She shouldn’t be losing this match and certainly shouldn’t be getting bagel’d.
Gauff has often lost to top players, but that title run in Auckland and her deeper runs elsewhere show us her consistency in beating players ranked below her and outside the top 20. The real concern for Gauff now is that she now has several losses to players in the top 30 and very lopsided ones at that. She’s beginning to spiral, and it’s happening when she’s got over 1000 points to defend at Roland Garros. That crucial moment in Gauff’s season isn’t exactly going to plan.
So often it feels like matches are decided by the quality of her opponent, not her. Is Gauff’s opponent good enough to expose that forehand? If yes, she loses. If no, she wins. She has just 2 wins against top 20 players this season. She is 1-9 in her last 10 matches against top 20 players.
There are other reasons for her losses beside that forehand, of course; she’s still only 19 and even with multiple years on tour already, she has time and room to develop. Her second serve could use work particularly, her overall game will only improve with time. But all of that feels insignificant compared to the glaring technical issue that is the forehand.
It’s always been an problem, but now it’s a shot that is breaking down more and more often. Far too many errors, and even when she does get it in play it’s not doing much. Her forehand is just pure top spin at times, looping endlessly into the middle of the court, begging to be put away. This was the case towards the end of her match against Emma Raducanu at the Australian Open; the confidence in the shot completely decimated by a top 80 player. If Emma Raducanu can break down your forehand, there are a lot of very good players who will be able to as well.
I think as Gauff has become a mainstay on the tour, people have naturally begun to figure her game out. The losses to top 20 players and how often they have been such beat downs doesn’t go unnoticed. More and more players know that the plan is to attack the forehand and to eek errors out of it. It’s not that hard when she struggles on regular rally balls more and more.
Clearly she is aware it is an issue and a weakness that’s being targeted. Her confidence in the forehand is draining more and more- the shot is getting even worse and her recent losses show that. She resorts to sliced forehands so often just to get it into play.
At some point Gauff and her team have to make a change to it. Now really is the time to do so while she’s still young. Gauff has the time to fix the forehand now before it becomes a real problem in the latter part of her career.
Tennis is often a sport of evolution rather than revolution; because of how long and uninterrupted the season is, there is barely any time to make big technical changes. It can take years to make the necessary technical improvements on any part of a player’s game.
The ideal solution really would be to go with revolution over evolution- take a few months off the tour to change the technique and come back far better for it. While it would certainly hurt her ranking in the short term, the long term gain is far greater.
Gauff is not going to fulfil her potential with that forehand and she’s not going to be able to do much with incremental improvements. The shot at the moment is bad- it’s not a relative weakness or slight problem, it’s an active hinderance and no amount of small micro improvements will change that. She needs a complete overhaul.
I can understand why nothing has been done about it as of yet to some extent. Her results have been very good this past year. She reached her first ever grand slam final at Roland Garros, made the quarter-final of the US Open, got into the top 10 in singles and world number 1 in doubles and made the WTA Finals for the first time. She is just 19 years old.
Each of those achievements are something most players can only dream of in an entire career. But she won’t be young forever. Those achievements were great, but when given more scrutiny they don’t deny the faults in her game.
She got to the Roland Garros final, but did not face anyone in the top 50 on route. The highest ranked player she faced was Elise Mertens (32) in the 4th round. She won just 4 games in the final against Swiatek with that forehand exposed badly- though you can understand some of the issues against a world number 1 going for a 35th consecutive win.
That run massively helped her in reaching the top 10, both in terms of ranking points- just over a quarter of her ranking points are from the Roland Garros final- but also boosting her seeding for events.
Gauff consistently beats the players she should beat, but also consistently loses to those in the top 20. She plays to her seeding often- she made several quarterfinals after the French Open- which gave her plenty of points to gain before running into trouble at the business end of tournaments. The WTA Finals giving players 125 points for a loss in round robin matches also helps her ranking and keep in the top 10.
While making the WTA Finals for the first time in both singles and doubles was extremely impressive and fully deserved, her performances while there left a lot to be desired. She lost all 3 of her matches in both singles and doubles and didn’t win a set in singles.
The WTA Finals is a unique challenge; it comes at the end of a gruelling season, especially for Gauff playing both singles and doubles, and is unique in that you are guaranteed 3 matches even if you lose. Jessica Pegula, Gauff’s doubles partner, spoke of finding it difficult for this reason; losing matches is difficult enough to deal with, but then having to go out on court again only a few days later is a new experience.
But even then, is it really a surprise that Gauff lost each match in singles? We know her record against top 20 players, let alone top 10. She wasn’t helped being in a group with in-form Caroline Garcia, who went on to win the title in Fort Worth, and world number 1 Swiatek who has consistently beaten Gauff with relative ease. But then again, I wouldn’t exactly have backed her against the rest of the field. Gauff is 2-10 against top 10 players in the last year. Truth be told, it feels like an upset when she beats top 10 and top 20 players.
I don’t want to be talking about Gauff’s forehand constantly and put it all down to that groundstroke. But I have to talk about Gauff’s forehand. It is such a glaring weakness, such a clear problem and wing that gets focused by opponents so relentlessly that you cannot help but talk about it.
It does sometimes feel like it’s the only thing we talk about with Coco Gauff, and that’s a huge shame. She has achieved so much so unbelievably young. She’s a top 10 player with a grand slam final at 19! She has years of experience on the tour already which is a crazy statement to make about someone so young. She is incredibly mature and has had steady development.
But her forehand is terrible. And that deficiency will continue to cost her until it is resolved. It is remarkable that she has managed to get this far with that forehand, really. It is a huge compliment to how good the rest of her game is. She’s been able to cover that weakness with unbelievable athletic ability, a huge first serve and impressive grit and grind.
Gauff knows how to win ugly. The problem is, she does nothing but win ugly because of the constant errors coming off her racket. Against players who are good enough to capitalise on that forehand, she can often fall apart. In tennis, weaknesses outweigh strengths. The best players expose problems and can punish them.
Yes, she has an awesome first serve, a very solid backhand and impeccable movement- I would say she is the second fast player and second best mover on tour behind Swiatek- but those are undermined by the forehand. Great movement does nothing when your shots go into the middle of the net or a metre behind the baseline every other point.
It doesn’t need to be an incredible shot for her, it just needs to be passable and solid. Plenty of other more defensive players such as Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep have had relatively weak forehands.
For a counterpuncher, it doesn’t need to be a groundstroke that gets winners off every strike. What it needs is consistency and an ability to stand up under pressure, the backhand can be the stroke from which she does the damage.
I want to be more optimistic about Gauff and talk about all the positives there are to her. She’s a wonderful player and a great asset to the sport. But that positivity is drained when you see her consistently struggle and roundly beaten because of problems that aren’t going to go away unless properly addressed.
The forehand is going from a problem to a crisis. Confidence has waned and the losses are becoming more severe. That won’t do any good for Gauff’s confidence as a whole and it certainly doesn’t help the forehand. How is she supposed to be competitive and win matches when she cannot trust one of her most crucial shots?
Unless a draw massively opens up for her like at Roland Garros last year, I don’t see her making many more deep runs at tournaments. She will run into the kind of players that can punish her in the latter stages of tournaments more often than not.
She’s not even competitive in many matches against a lot of top 10 players and increasingly lower ranked players are exposing and capitalising on the forehand. Results are trending only one way.
I hope for her own sake she takes the time away to make the necessary improvements. There is no getting around that technical problem. Solve it and Gauff’s problems become far smaller. She is an all court player with years of experience already and a pretty refined and promising game.
She is being pushed as the future of the sport, put on the show courts for grand slam matches regularly. Can you blame them for doing so? She’s an exciting young American with a wonderful personality and great game.
Everyone has tipped her to win multiple grand slams, and while I certainly don’t love placing such expectations on a teenager, I don’t disagree with the sentiment. She has a grand slam final in singles and multiple in doubles at 19.
Everything feels set for Gauff to be a success, if she’s able to fix that problem. I will certainly be glad to see it happen not only because of my enjoy of her as a tennis player, but also because it means we can stop sucking all of the oxygen out of the room discussing nothing but her awful forehand any time her matches are discussed. I am sick of Coco Gauff forehand discourse, but it is also a necessity that we engage in it and will be until things are fixed.
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