Coco Gauff steps up in her tennis career

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Now that the pressure to win a Grand Slam singles title as a teenager is over, Coco Gauff feels liberated enough to discuss her next target: a career tally in double digits.

Could be 10, 11 or more … no limits. Plus, an Olympic medal in Paris this year. Preferably gold, but silver or bronze would do — in singles, doubles or mixed.

 

She’s entering the Australian Open as a reigning Grand Slam champion, new territory for the 19-year-old American. Had she not fulfilled those expectations at last year’s U.S. Open, this would have been her last shot at being a teenage major winner.

 

Gauff, who turns 20 in March, believes she can play with more freedom now in pursuit of a second major title as the No. 4 seeded player at Melbourne Park.

The tournament starts Sunday, a day earlier than usual. Defending champion Novak Djokovic, aiming for a recording-extending 11th Australian title and 25th overall, announced ahead of the schedule’s release that he’d be playing Sunday night. Djokovic opens against 18-year-old qualifier Dino Prizmic of Croatia.

 

Gauff’s first-round match is against Anna Karolina Schmeiedlova, a 29-year-old from Slovakia who has only been past the third round once in 35 majors.

Having rebounded from a shocking first-round exit at Wimbledon to winning a breakthrough major title at the very next major in New York has helped with a shift in mindset.

“I think I put too much pressure on winning a Slam. I think I was feeling like I have to do it,” Gauff said. “When I went on the scene at 15, I felt like I had to win a Slam as a teenager because that’s what everybody thought.

“Honestly, going into U.S. Open, I didn’t expect it. I felt like I was having a bad season, and my focus was just get through the season and focus on the Australian Open this year.”

 

It was the loss at Wimbledon that helped her take pause, relax and think about all those rounds before the final, one-by-one. She’d thought losing in the first round would have been the worst thing to happen to her.

Turns out, “wasn’t even that bad,” she said. “The world didn’t end. The sun still shines. I still have my friends and family.

 

“I realized that losing isn’t all that bad, and that I should just focus on the battle and the process and enjoy it. I found myself being able to play freer and trust myself more.”

Gauff is in the same quarter of the draw as four-time major winner Naomi Osaka and Caroline Wozniacki, both past Australian Open champions who are returning to Melbourne Park as mothers for the first time.

 

Leylah Fernandez, the 2021 U.S. Open runner-up, and No. 8 Maria Sakkari are also there. Defending Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka is in the same half of the draw and could be a semifinal rival.

Sabalenka had a breakthrough win at Melbourne Park last year and reached the semifinals at the French Open and Wimbledon and the final at the U.S. Open, where she took the first set off Gauff before losing in three.

 

In tune-up tournaments, Gauff successfully defended her title in Auckland, New Zealand, last weekend and Sabalenka reached the final in Brisbane.

Second-ranked Sabalenka said she’s a better player 12 months on from her triumph in Australia.

 

“I had an incredible season last year, improved a lot as a player and as a person,” she said. “I did really a great pre-season. We worked a lot. I felt like we improved a lot. I feel really great and feel like I’m ready to go.”

My first Grand Slam final was against Sofia and now we’re playing in the first round. It’s pretty weird,” Swiatek said. “That’s how our life journeys kind of went apart.”

 

Awaiting the winner of that match is either 2016 Australian Open winner Angelique Kerber, in her comeback from a maternity break, or 2022 finalist Danielle Collins.

At the bottom of that side of the draw are No. 5 Jessica Pegula and 2021 U.S. Open champion Emma Raducanu, who hasn’t gone past the second round at a major since then and is coming off eight months on the sidelines following operations on both wrists and an ankle.

 

On the men’s side, Djokovic has long dominated Melbourne Park. He’s on a 28-match winning streak here — 21 before and seven after the tournament he was forced to miss in 2022 because he wasn’t vaccinated for COVID-19.

He’s the only one of the so-called Big Three in the field after 22-time major winner Rafael Nadal withdrew last week, his comeback from a year-long injury layoff lasting just three matches.