When Coco Gauff and Zendaya Need Tennis Tips, They Ask Brad Gilbert

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.

That match, by the way, ended just after 1:30 a.m. on Saturday, and Gilbert had spent Friday afternoon calling matches before heading to Gauff’s courtside box. It was well after 2 a.m. when he got back to the New York LaGuardia Airport Marriott. Then he spent an hour analyzing the video of the match that Gauff’s next opponent, Caroline Wozniacki, had won that afternoon. Finally, around 3:30 a.m., he clicked off the light. Rise and shine arrived at 6.

“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.”

Indeed, this is the life Gilbert has chosen.

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.

It’s a good life. Has been for a while.

Gilbert is the same as he ever was, Shriver said. She and Gilbert first bonded at the 1988 Olympics, two sports nuts who won medals while hopscotching from swimming to wrestling to track and field to take in the competition.

“He loved scouting,” Shriver said. “Loved game plans.”

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.

Zendaya, the actor and music star, had signed on to star in “Challengers,” an upcoming movie about a professional tennis love triangle.

Small problem: She had no idea how to play tennis. Could Gilbert teach her and her co-stars Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist how to play well enough to not look ridiculous? Also, could he set up and design the points in the action scenes?

Sure, why not, Gilbert said. He and Zendaya started showing up at Pepperdine University tennis matches to help her understand the game. There were three months of training in California, then four months of rehearsal and filming in Boston and New York.

When it was done, Gilbert looked around and saw that his friends from television were coaching top pros part-time. Darren Cahill was working with Jannik Sinner, the Italian ranked sixth in the world. Shriver was working with Donna Vekic, the talented veteran from Croatia.

Gilbert wanted back in with a top American player. He put the word out and began to get some offers, but he wanted to make sure it was with the right player, a member of the elite whom he believed he could help and who shared his hunger.

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.

American? Check.

Elite? Check.

Hungry? Triple check.

“A super kid,” he said of Gauff on Saturday.

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.

Then there is this: Gilbert began working with Agassi in March 1994, and Agassi won the U.S. Open that September. Gilbert began working with Roddick in June 2003. Three months later, Roddick was the U.S. Open champion

They were different players. Agassi, Gilbert said, had a photographic memory and an analytical mind that could take apart a match hours later, stroke by stroke, with total recall. Roddick was so exuberant that Gilbert had roughly 15 seconds to deliver any message before his attention went elsewhere.

His take on Gauff? Kind of like Zendaya, he said.

Both were prodigies who began working on their craft and breaking through as young children. They’re around the same height, about 5-foot-10. And Zendaya has the wingspan of someone closer to 6-4, he said. Great athletic physique. If only he had gotten to teach her tennis when she was younger.

They were texting the other day, on Zendaya’s 27th birthday. She told him she was watching and was all in on Gauff. He said he was, too. Just as he wanted.

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