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The rise of Coco Gauff starts with her courage at charging forward

Coco Gauff's skill at attacking the net helped her get past Emma Raducanu in the second round of the Australian Open. (Carl Recine/Reuters)

Though just 18, Coco Gauff has made notable strides since her first Grand Slam final ended with a loss to world No. 1 Iga Swiatek at last season’s French Open, just weeks after she graduated from high school.

She has steadied a shaky second serve, shored up her forehand and bolted to a 7-0 record this season in winning her third career singles title (without conceding a set) and advancing to the Australian Open’s third round with her latest victory — a straight-sets defeat of 2021 U.S. Open champion Emma Raducanu.

But one aspect of Gauff’s game has set her apart since she burst onto the global tennis scene at 15, when she reached Wimbledon’s fourth round in 2019: Her courage to attack when given an opening and her confidence in finishing points at the net.

“[It is] what she does better than anyone else: If she sees a short ball, she never backpedals,” notes former No. 1 Lindsay Davenport, now a Tennis Channel analyst. “So many players get in the midcourt, [and] they don’t trust themselves or have that experience. This is a huge advantage for her, that ability. Seamless. Short ball, hit it, move forward. … That is going to win her a lot of points.”

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It should serve Gauff in good stead as the Australian Open unfolds in Melbourne, where she is the youngest seeded player at No. 7.

“I’ve never been scared coming to the net,” Gauff said to reporters after her first-round victory. “… I think I have good reactions coming to the net, so I kind of just allow myself to trust myself. And also accept that, you know, they’re going to hit some good passing shots. As long as you’re winning a majority of the points, then there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

For many pros, seizing opportunities to charge forward isn’t instinctive. They would rather wage a war of attrition from the baseline than force the issue by attacking.

Veteran coach Rick Macci, who molded the young careers of future No. 1s Jennifer Capriati and Venus and Serena Williams, among others, is delighted to see more women incorporating attack-minded tactics in their games today, no matter how uneasy they may feel.

“Now, do they get up to the short balls and eat them for breakfast?” Macci asks. “In my opinion, that’s a mind-set. And in my opinion, no one does that better than Coco. She uses her speed, her athleticism to beat the ball to the spot. She knows she has to do it, and she’s not afraid to volley.”

That’s backed up by Gauff’s doubles ranking — No. 1 in the world in August after she and fellow American Jessica Pegula won their second Masters 1000 title of the year. She’s currently No. 4 in doubles and No. 7 in singles.

In some ways, Gauff’s zeal for coming forward is a throwback to an earlier era in women’s tennis. And a trio of net-chargers of yore marveled at her grit from courtside seats at the WTA Finals in Fort Worth in November — Zina Garrison, her longtime doubles partner Lori McNeil and former No. 1 Martina Navratilova, arguably the best at it.

“It’s very interesting about coming forward: It takes a certain type of attitude and a certain type of personality and a certain type of experience,” said Garrison, who reached No. 4 in the world in 1989, later opened a youth tennis academy in Houston and coached Taylor Townsend for a time.

While strokes and footwork can be fine-tuned with repetition, a genuine thirst for attacking is as much a reflection of temperament as a learned tactic: a mental aspect of a very mental game, as elemental as a fight-or-flight response.

But it is also teachable, according to Macci and Garrison. And pros who fail to develop it — or at least overcome their aversion enough to sprinkle occasional surges forward in their repertoires — become all too predictable.

For Navratilova, it was an extension of her personality.

“Martina was a risk-taker,” Garrison recalled. “She liked fast cars; she liked to speed. She skied. All that. For me, I was always calculated: ‘Tell me why I need to come to the net.’ ”

John Wilkerson, who coached Garrison and McNeil, her childhood friend, at Houston’s MacGregor Park from an early age, did just that. Once she won her first match by coming forward on match point, Garrison understood.

“Once I learned to come forward, there were certain parts of the court where, if the ball hit that part of the court, I was going forward. I trained that over and over and over and over and over until it became natural for me,” said Garrison, who was a 1987 Australian Open doubles finalist with McNeil.

Macci, 68, has a trove of anecdotes from decades working with world-class juniors at his Boca Raton, Fla., academy.

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Capriati was 10 when her father brought her to Macci’s academy in the mid-1980s and “kind of a Chris Evert clone” with impeccable fundamentals, he recalled.

Macci saw untapped potential in the youngster. He also saw the women’s game becoming more explosive — a change forced by the evolution of racket technology and a rising phenom at IMG Academy named Monica Seles who was ripping the covers off balls the split-second they caromed off the court.

So Macci sold Stefano Capriati on a new game plan for his daughter. “I said, ‘She’s going to take the ball right off the bounce, stand three feet in on second serves because most second serves are like cupcakes with extra icing,’ ” Macci recounted.

A few years later, Richard Williams brought Venus and Serena to Macci’s academy. They already were outliers — exceptional athletes who took the ball early and played aggressively. So they worked on maximizing those attributes and cutting down the court with sharply angled shots.

Macci believes all players can be taught to jump on short balls with conviction. The key is teaching it early, at 8 or 9, rather than waiting until 14 or 15. But that means going against the grain of traditional junior tennis, where the premium is on keeping the ball in play, limiting errors, putting more margin on the shots.

“This is a big problem: People don’t want kids to lose,” Macci said. “But remember, this is junior development, not junior final destination. Think about it: When you come to the net [as a youngster], you’re going to die quickly. You have little arms, little legs, you’re going to get lobbed. A lot of kids would rather die slowly at the baseline, so it’s neglected.

“But if you want to be a champion, you have to earn it. The leader in the clubhouse is courage. The leader in the clubhouse is no fear. It’s the coaches’ job to get ’em to love it.”

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