To Get Better at Being Single, Coco Gauff Is Making It a Double

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WIMBLEDON, England — Coco Gauff, 17, and Roger Federer, 39, are at opposite ends of their playing careers, but they keep sharing the same highly desirable real estate.

Both were on Centre Court at Wimbledon again on Saturday, just as they were on Thursday.

Gauff went first, defeating Kaja Juvan 6-3, 6-3 to reach the fourth round of the tournament where she became a star in 2019 by reaching that same round in her Grand Slam singles debut.

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Federer went next, fighting through a rough patch to win 6-4, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 against Cameron Norrie, an unorthodox but dangerous British left-hander who stole quite a bit of Federer’s crowd support but ultimately not his thunder.

Gauff, who has received some plum court assignments in her short time as a professional, told me that she considers herself Federer’s opening act.

“You know how at concerts, they have a big artist, then a smaller artist comes before them?” she said. “That’s what I kind of like to think of it as. It’s pretty cool. Roger definitely has a big influence on my mentality on and off the court. He’s always someone that I can go and talk to if I need advice.”

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That is, in part, because Gauff is represented by the agency that manages Federer and in which he owns a financial stake.

But unlike her mentor, Gauff did not head back to the London hotel bubble after finishing her singles match on Saturday. She had doubles to play, and she advanced to the round of 16 in that event as well with her partner, Caty McNally, as they defeated Paula Badosa and Sara Sorribes Tormo 6-4, 6-4.

Gauff said that one of the best pieces of advice she received after her Wimbledon breakthrough was from Michelle Obama, the former first lady.

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“I got requests from everyone, every which way,” she said. “I found myself not being able to keep up. I really went from not being known to everybody wanting something. She told me it was OK to say no.”

But Gauff is still saying yes to doubles. She and McNally, 19, were dubbed “McCoco” when they made a run to the third round at the 2019 U.S. Open as wild cards, drawing big crowds along the way, and they have the potential to make much deeper runs together.

Their friendship is strong, and their mutual understanding on a tennis court is evident. They communicate frequently, move together intuitively and do a version of the now-retired Bryan twins’ leaping chest bump after victories.

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Call it the side bump, and Gauff and McNally do get some air.

“Caty and I are good friends — it’s really nice to be at the same tournament with somebody you like to hang out with, especially around my age,” Gauff said in a recent interview. “I think for both of us, us being friends benefits us a lot, especially because on tour in the bubble life you don’t go out as much and get as much social life.”

Singles remains the coin of the realm. Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal did not become the Big Three by playing doubles, even if Nadal and Federer have both won Olympic gold medals in doubles.

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The leading men, who play best-of-five-sets singles matches at the Grand Slam tournaments, do not play doubles at those events, although Nick Kyrgios, the showboating Australian star, has made a habit of doing so and is playing mixed doubles at Wimbledon with Venus Williams this year. But he perhaps paid a price for that workload after a long layoff and withdrew after just two sets because of an abdominal injury in his third-round singles match against Felix Auger-Aliassime on Saturday.

But the leading women are a different matter when it comes to doubles, and though Aryna Sabalenka recently decided to focus on only singles at the majors, that is not the trend.

Last month, Barbora Krejcikova became the first woman to win the singles and doubles titles at the French Open in the same year since 2000. Krejcikova and her partner, Katerina Siniakova, are back in the round of 16 at Wimbledon, where they won the title together in 2018.

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Though Siniakova’s singles tournament ended on Saturday with a loss to first seed Ashleigh Barty, Krejcikova is into the fourth round of singles after defeating Anastasija Sevastova in a nervy three-setter that was the latest sign of her ability to play the decisive points better than her peers.

Krejcikova, no longer a doubles specialist, is in singles at Wimbledon for the first time and will face Barty in the round of 16, presumably with a great scouting report from Siniakova.

“I’m very much surprised,” Krejcikova said of her continued success. “In Paris I had some matches where I was down a lot, and I was still able to find a way. With every single match like this, I actually feel that even if I tell myself I’m tired, and I cannot do this anymore, or my legs are shaking or I’m not feeling well, I can still fight, and I can still win. So, this is something that for sure before Paris I didn’t know that I actually had.”

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Gauff and Krejcikova are the only players still in contention in both singles and women’s doubles at Wimbledon. No men are still in contention in both singles and men’s doubles.

It was not always thus for the men, but it has been for a while. John Newcombe won both titles in 1970, partnering with Tony Roche. John McEnroe won both titles in 1981, 1983 and 1984, partnering with Peter Fleming.

McEnroe, no great fan of practice, liked to say that he used doubles for training, and though the game has undergone major change in the last 40 years, McNally and Gauff can relate. So can Corey Gauff, who coaches his daughter, and Kevin O’Neill, who coaches McNally on the road.

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“Corey and I talk about this all the time,” O’Neill said on Saturday. “In juniors, when you play a tournament, you always play singles and doubles, and it helps your game. It helps you get better at all of your shots and become more of an all-court player.”

Coco Gauff and McNally are both committed to that process, focused on coming to net more than most of today’s leading women’s players. Volleying is an intrinsic part of doubles but not the only benefit to an aspiring singles champion.

“It helps me a lot to get those extra reps in,” Gauff said. “When I play doubles, I start to return better in singles. I feel in doubles there’s more pressure to return, just because there’s another person at the net and you don’t want them to peg your partner.”

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For O’Neill, the other benefit is the chance to compete more often under pressure.

“Doubles puts you into big situations with big points just like singles,” he said. “And the more you keep putting yourself in those situations the more comfortable you will become, and the more success you will have.”

Managing the physical and mental load is the challenge, but Krejcikova proved it was still possible in Paris, just as Serena Williams proved it was still possible at Wimbledon, most recently in 2012 and 2016, when she swept singles and doubles, partnering with her sister Venus.

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Gauff and McNally have big plans of their own.

“We both discuss how we both want to win singles and doubles Grand Slam titles, hopefully against each other in the finals one day and with each other in the finals in doubles,” Gauff said. “I played her a couple times in juniors, and she’s honestly one of the best competitors I know. She’s someone who will hate your guts on the court but be your best friend off the court, and that’s something I really respect about her.”

Their next chance to team up comes on Monday, but only after Gauff has played her singles match. That will be on Centre Court against the former Wimbledon champion Angelique Kerber, followed by Federer versus Lorenzo Sonego, which should come as no surprise at this stage.

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