Gilbert’s Coaching Advice to Gauff: Know what’s coming, and play to your strengths

Brad Gilbert — tennis junkie, junkballer, commentator, coach of legends — had roughly seven minutes to trade his coaching hat for a microphone, to shift from helping Coco Gauff manage her third-round match Friday night to interviewing Novak Djokovic in the tunnel before his.

“Been coming to this place since 1981,” Gilbert, who travels with an espresso machine, said between sips of coffee as he headed to his office, a.k.a. the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, on Saturday morning. “Wouldn’t have it any other way.”

For 40 years, he has been a near-ubiquitous presence in the sport, rising through the 1980s to the No. 4 ranking in the world, despite his quirky, awkward, ugly strokes, then pivoting to coaching and television work, often at the same time, in that hybrid way that is oddly common in tennis. Andre Agassi had him at his side when he won the U.S. Open in 1994, as did Andy Roddick, in 2003.

Now, at 62 and a decade removed from top-level coaching, Gilbert is back in the trenches and quickly becoming a star of this year’s U.S. Open, albeit in a supporting role to the 19-year-old Gauff, who is among the biggest stars of this quintessentially American tennis party. One minute, Gilbert is chatting and applauding Gauff through a practice session. The next, he’s hustling through the crowds, fist-bumping fans who treat him like an old buddy on his way up to the ESPN commentary booth to mingle with a decidedly older set of stars from his era, such as Chris Evert, Patrick McEnroe and Pam Shriver.

“A very funny man,” Gauff said earlier this summer of Gilbert, whose coaching exploits she knew little about, since, as she pointed out with a giggle, they mostly happened before she was born. “I didn’t want to be with someone who’s a wall. But he’s definitely not a wall.”

Tennis fans love and hate his nerdy player nicknames. Stan Wawrinka, the Swiss tank of a player, is “Stanimal.” Carlos Alcaraz is “Escape from Alcaraz.” And on and on.

Last year took an unconventional turn. For nearly a decade, Gilbert had been working with junior players on private courts in California. Then the phone rang with an odd request.

After Gauff lost in the first round at Wimbledon in July, another disappointing Grand Slam result for a player who believes she is ready to win the biggest titles, he got a call from her team. They wanted him to speak with her parents about sharing his been-there wisdom as an adviser alongside Gauff’s new and somewhat-inexperienced coach, Pere Riba.

Gauff’s shortcomings were hardly a mystery: a shaky forehand and serve in tight moments; a struggle to maximize her prodigious strengths — her speed and ability to cover the court, her fitness, her blazing backhand, a laserlike first serve.
Used the right way, those tools have gotten her far. Maybe Gilbert’s brain could get her over the line.

“He loved discussing matchups, how to get to people’s weaknesses,” said Andy Murray, who worked with Gilbert earlier in his career. “It was very focused on the strategy and finding ways to win matches.”

Gilbert and Gauff’s team have kept quiet about the specific ways he has helped her, but anyone who watches him and hears what he says from her box during matches can figure it out: Know what’s coming, and play to your strengths.

“Make it physical, Coco,” is a constant refrain, a reminder that she can chase down balls all night long if she wants to, taking the legs and the heart out of opponents.

Gilbert has little use for the statistics that have come into fashion among many elite teams. He ignores the screen in the coaching box that gives coaches real-time data. “I trust my eyes,” he said.

He has been trying to introduce Gauff to his music, sending her links to songs by Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen and the Eagles. Gauff, a fan of City Girls — a Miami hip-hop duo featuring artists Yung Miami and JT — has yet to share her thoughts.

Still, at the moment, she and her team have every reason to trust his eyes, too. Gauff has won two of her first three tournaments with him on the team, and 14 of 15 matches, including three at the U.S. Open.