Coco Gauff confronts the importance of efficiency

Coco Gauff is a great in-match problem solver. Her magical run at Wimbledon in 2019, which thrust her into the global tennis spotlight, featured a memorable comeback against veteran Polona Hercog. Her 2019 U.S. Open run, which showed that she possessed a measure of staying power, involved multiple three-set wins. At age 15, Gauff had already demonstrated she knew how to ride the ups and downs of a match, play the next point, not get too down on herself, and figure out how to win against professional competition.

Three years later, Gauff’s ability to cope with the stresses and challenges of demanding matches remains fully intact. She defeated Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina and top-10 fixture Aryna Sabalenka in punishing three-setters to make the Toronto quarterfinals. Gauff showed why she has to be taken seriously as a contender at the U.S. Open. Given that she reached the final of Roland Garros earlier this year, no one would be surprised if she advanced to the final in New York.

Yet, Gauff — as promising as the future looks for her career in both short- and long-term contexts — has to be able to apply one lesson if she wants to maximize her talents: Efficiency matters. It might not become meaningful on the day of a match victory, but it can certainly matter in the next match or the match after that.

A lack of efficiency caught up with Gauff in her Toronto quarterfinal loss to Simona Halep on Friday.

It’s basic math: Play more sets, more games, more points, and one has a greater chance of losing. Being extended to an 11th game in a set instead of wrapping it up at 6-4 or 6-3 invites the possibility that a key point will go the wrong way, or a tiebreaker will provide the wrong coin-flip result. Beyond that, playing a steady stream of 2:30 or 3-hour matches will create the possibility that a fresh opponent — who hasn’t toiled extensively — will have more energy and sharpness the next day.

Halep certainly got the jump on Gauff, who made this a contest (as she always does) but was ultimately punished for continuing to flirt with such small margins for error.

This was less about Gauff playing poorly on a given day, and much more about Gauff not putting herself in the best position to play well. There’s a difference.

Imagine a world in which Gauff defeated Sabalenka 7-5, 6-2. She did lead 7-5, 3-0 in that match, but she allowed it to become a prolonged slugfest. If she had spent 75 fewer minutes on court, she would have had more in the tank for Halep. It wouldn’t have guaranteed victory, but it would have put her in a much better position.

It’s fitting that Bianca Andreescu lost in three sets at this same Toronto tournament, because Andreescu’s chronic addiction to 3-setters has left her overcooked and created a level of physical strain which has worked against her development and success as a tennis player. Andreescu rode the 3-set train to ultimate glory in 2019, but that was not a sustainable formula.

Gauff might win a pile of 3-setters at the U.S. Open and make a very deep run — much as Leylah Fernandez did last year — but over the much longer arc of her career, that tendency to play max-length matches will hurt her.

Gauff technically lost to Halep on Friday. In truth, she lost on Thursday when she couldn’t turn a set and 3-0 lead into a quick day at the office. Efficiency is something Gauff has to be able to display if she wants to get everything out of her career.

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