As French Open riddles go, Coco Gauff makes for a pretty good one.
On the surface, she has no business steamrolling opponents on the red clay of Roland Garros, especially women from Europe who grew up on the stuff. But steamroll she has, cruising into the final 16 without dropping a set.
Gauff is playing in the half of the draw that does not include Iga Swiatek of Poland, the world No. 1 who has not lost since mid-February and plays every match like her court-time will expire after an hour. That means Gauff is positioned as well as anyone to stay alive deep into the second week, which has some people who have been around the sport for a very long time scratching their heads.
After Gauff beat Kaia Kanepi of Estonia on Friday afternoon, 6-3, 6-4, in a brisk 83 minutes, Fabrice Santoro, the retired French player who does the on-court interviews, was less than subtle.
You’re an American, and yet you love clay, Santoro said. How is this possible?
Indeed Gauff has grown up mostly in Florida, which has produced its share of tennis champions, but Americans have a reputation for being allergic to clay, growing up in a country where hardcourts are ubiquitous and French Open champions not named Williams are rare.
Mary Carillo, who won the mixed-doubles title here in 1977 with John McEnroe, said McEnroe told her he still found it difficult to return to the venue where he blew a two-set lead in the 1984 men’s singles final. An American man has not won the singles title since Andre Agassi in 1999. Serena Williams won it three times, most recently in 2015, and her 23 Grand Slam victories have come much more often on the other surfaces. Sofia Kenin was a finalist in 2020, and Amanda Anisimova was a semifinalist in 2019.
Gauff’s game, when she is avoiding her ugly streaks of double faults, is built around her powerful serve. When the ball makes contact with clay, it slows and pops in the air more than it does on any other surface, which should render her most potent weapon less so. Also, her strokes can be erratic, a dangerous trait on a surface on which the ability to grind through long rallies is essential.
And yet, Gauff talks like a dirt baller who grew up in Spain, where clay-court tennis is simply known as tennis.
“I love clay,” she said earlier this week. “I have good results on clay all the time.”
Gauff won the girls’ title here in 2018 and made the quarterfinals in the main draw last year. She could have a good bit of American company in the fourth round, where she will face Elise Mertens of Belgium. Anisimova advanced Friday after Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic twisted an ankle badly during the second set of what had been a tense battle. Muchova had to default early in the third. Sloane Stephens, the 2017 U.S. Open champion and a finalist at the 2018 French Open, advanced with a win over Diane Parry of France. Jessica Pegula, Madison Keys and Shelby Rogers play their third-round matches Saturday.
At just 18, Gauff is the youngest of the lot. She also has been the most intentional about making herself as good on clay as she is on any other surface, from her first years of pursuing tennis seriously. She began traveling to the south of France to train at the Mouratoglou Academy when she was 10.
Also, look a little deeper and the clay may give Gauff as many advantages as it takes away. At 5-foot-9, Gauff is around the average height among top players these days, but she has long legs. That can help her cover a lot of ground with just a few quick steps, but it can make balls that stay low on grass and hardcourts a tad more difficult for her.
If there has been a common thread in Gauff’s first three matches, it’s how well positioned she has so often been. The balls hit the clay and bounce right into her strike zone, giving her a series of belt-high fastballs that she can tee off on, while taking advantage of the extra split second the clay gives her to set her feet or slide into position.
Always aggressive and hunting for forehands, she will inevitably make her share of errors, but so far she has hit more winners than unforced errors, which is always a good sign for any player. She has also rarely appeared off balance.
“I really enjoy sliding,” she said. “I think it helps me recover faster after I get to the ball. Then also, I mean, I play pretty heavy on my forehand, so I think that clay bounces the ball up even higher.”
For her part, Anisimova, 20, also spent most of her childhood in Florida, but she said she grew more comfortable on the clay largely by playing a lot of junior tournaments in Latin American countries, where red clay is also far more common than it is in the United States.
Anisimova is a dangerous returner, able to punish the slower serves, especially with her near-lethal backhand. She also knows her footwork and movement may be the weakest part of her still-developing game, and the longer points on clay inevitably require her to cover more ground. The clay makes her weakness a little less weak.
“It gives me more time,” she said of the clay after her win over Muchova. “Hard courts sometimes can be a bit too quick.”
One more win each for Gauff and Stephens, and they would face each other in a quarterfinal between two Americans.
Stephens faces Jil Teichmann of Switzerland and knows she has her work cut out for her for a simple reason.
“She likes clay,” Stephens said.