Tired trope though it may be, it is a dictum of life as much as sports that you learn more in defeat than in victory.
Whether there is any truth to that will come as little consolation to Coco Gauff as she picks apart her latest performance. The 18-year-old, the youngest player to reach back-to-back quarter-finals at a Canadian Open since Jennifer Capriati in 1990-91, exited the National Bank Open in Toronto on Friday following a straight-sets defeat to Simona Halep.
The American teen, who was labelled as the next Serena Williams long before the 23-time Grand Slam champion announced her impending retirement this week, was banking on her ferocious ground strokes and athleticism being enough to power her into the final four.
However, she was unable to overcome the tenacity and experience of her Romanian opponent, a two-time Grand Slam champion 12 years her senior in a 6-4, 7-6 (2) defeat, coming out on the wrong end of a match against the world No. 16 for the fourth time in four attempts. To make matters worse, and indicative of the current gulf between them, Gauff has yet to take a set off of her.
But then, as someone who posed for photos with her high school diploma in front of the Eiffel Tower earlier this summer, shortly before making her first Grand Slam final at Roland Garros, it’s fair to say that the learning is far from over for Gauff the tennis player.
Despite ousting the reigning Wimbledon champion, Elena Rybakina, in the second round here – and fresh off the longest match of her career in Thursday’s marathon of 3 hours 11 minutes against Aryna Sabalenka – Gauff is still coming into her own as a player, albeit one talented enough to have reached a career-high 11th in the world.
As far as apprenticeships go, the match of 1:47 against Halep will have been a crash course in ruthlessness.
If someone had told Gauff before the match that she would break Halep’s serve five times, she would have simply asked the identity of her semi-final opponent. But then that would have discounted the ability of the former Wimbledon and French Open champion – bidding for a third career win at this event – to tame a serve that sometimes exceeded 190 kilometres an hour.
When Halep was asked after the match how she dealt with a serve that at one point reached 196 kmh, she was only interested in dealing with the facts.
“[One] ninety eight,” she corrected the interviewer on the subject of Gauff’s top service speed, without mentioning that she had actually broken that booming serve on six of the 11 opportunities she had to do so. Gauff, bidding to become the tournament’s youngest semi-finalist since Martina Hingis 24 years ago, could only convert five of 12 chances. As a result, it is Halep who will now face Jessica Pegula, the seventh seed, for a place in Sunday’s final.
Much like Williams, the idol who had inspired her tennis career, Gauff showed a burgeoning stubborn streak in her unwavering commitment to the power game, even after getting broken in the opening game of each set.
There were multiple examples of this, but perhaps the fifth game of the second set illustrated it best. Already down a set and having fallen behind 3-0 to begin the second, Gauff showed signs of renewed life in breaking Halep for just the second time in the match, but quickly went behind 40-0 in the fifth game.
Unperturbed, her next three first serves were timed at 188, 184 and 200 km/h, and although the last two were faults that predictably led to lower-velocity second serves, she conspired to win all three points to get to deuce.
Though she was unable to capitalize once there, losing the game to fall into a 4-1 hole, Gauff rallied again, breaking Halep three times over the final seven games of the set to force a tiebreak. But things unravelled for her at that point, with five unforced errors, including a double fault to set up match point. Predictably, for someone who has won the third-most matches on the WTA Tour this season, Halep didn’t need a second invitation.
To accentuate the positives, the tiebreak was the first time that Gauff has taken more than four games off Halep in a set, and the Romanian said her young opponent is getting stronger.
“It’s always tough to play against her,” she said afterward. “And you never know, because she’s fighting until the end. And actually she doesn’t give you a point. So you have to stay there and to fight.”
Gauff has previously credited her grandfather – former minor-league baseball player Eddie (Red) Odom, who once roomed with Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker – for the tenacity in her game. But whether it comes genetically or otherwise, it’s the kind of attribute that will serve Gauff well as she fights to improve on her two career singles titles, and win that breakthrough Grand Slam.
Her next chance to do so comes later this month at the U.S. Open, which, coincidentally, will also be the final Grand Slam of Williams’s career. While Gauff would love to play her idol before she hangs up her racquet for good, she’s equally happy to see the next generation of female tennis stars coming through to carry the torch. That’s a group that includes reigning U.S. Open champion Emma Raducanu, and Canada’s Leylah Fernandez, both just 19, and world No. 1 Iga Swiatek, a grizzled veteran at 21, who beat Gauff in this year’s French Open final.
“I think it’s great,” Gauff said earlier this week. “I think iron sharpens iron. I love that term. I think it just makes you want to do better. I think watching Emma and Leylah do well at the U.S. Open made me want to do even better.”