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The Unwind is Yahoo Life’s well-being series in which experts, influencers and celebrities share their approaches to wellness and mental health, from self-care rituals to setting healthy boundaries to the mantras that keep them afloat.
Coco Gauff made a strong first impression at the start of her fourth U.S. Open on Monday when she beat Poland's Magda Linette on opening day at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York. But even as the 17-year-old goes on to compete in the second round against Sloane Stephens, a fellow American player more than 10 years her senior, Gauff admits that being the second-youngest player at the tournament puts her at a disadvantage when it comes to preparing for the challenges she may face on the court.
"It's definitely harder the younger you are just because you have a lack of experience. And I feel like the more experience you get in those bigger moments, the more you know how to approach them," Gauff tells Yahoo Life at the opening night of American Express Courts at Hudson River Park’s Pier 76 in New York City where she came to celebrate the return of the 2021 US Open Tournament with fans. "I've found myself like not knowing how to approach them, which is normal if you've never been in this situation before, but definitely the more experienced players know how to approach it just because they've been in it a lot more."
The Florida native began playing tennis at just 6 years old, giving her more than a decade's worth of skill under her belt. But it's the mental aspect of the game that seems more difficult for her to tackle, especially as she takes on the biggest of arenas in her sport.
Here, Gauff talks about returning to a spectator-filled U.S. Open after competing during the pandemic in 2020 and the creative way she mentally prepares for matches.
How are you feeling going into the tournament this year?
I'm super-excited to play in my home country and play in front of fans again and to play in New York City, which is definitely one of the best cities in the world. This is definitely my favorite tournament personally, and last year was such a bummer when no one could come, but now I'm excited to see people in the crowds
New York fans are definitely the rowdiest fans in the world. Last year, I just feel like it was so quiet in between points and balls and I think none of us were used to it and it was kind of hard to find energy. When you feel like you're down, the crowd can always bring that energy and they can really bring you back into a match.
How do you deal with the pressure that comes along with playing in the U.S. Open?
Before big tournaments like this I try to do a lot of self-reflecting and just being grateful for everything. I used to always make these tournaments such a big deal, which they are a big deal, but also I have to remember to enjoy it. And that's something I found myself not doing. My dad always tells me before each match, 'It's just a tennis match. You've played hundreds of those so just treat it like one. Don't treat it like a life-or-death situation.' When I minimize at the moment, it makes the match so much easier and makes it so much more fun on the court.
What are some of your pregame rituals that make it easier to get into that mindset?
I'm always like doing stuff to relax myself. So TikTok or reading — anything that keeps my mind off the match. And then right before I like to pump some music. I listen to rap a lot right before going on the court, which is really weird because I don't listen to it at all when I'm off the court. I feel like I need something just to get the energy going.
You've talked about your love for anime and cosplay. How do you find time to enjoy those hobbies?
I am constantly watching cosplayers on YouTube to see how I can build mine. I bought actually three of them for Halloween time, during the off-season when tournament's aren't happening. So I'm excited to try to take it to a different level than what I did last year.
For me, it's kind of cool just to be someone different for a couple of hours and just get into that character's personality. I'm constantly daydreaming, so I've just really loved it ever since I was a kid. I've always loved dressing up and on Halloween and then I realized that people actually do it all times of the year and not just Halloween. And it kind of made me feel better.
Are there ways that you bring that passion onto the court?
People are going to think this is crazy, but sometimes I'm on the court and thinking about what another character did when they were in a high-pressure moment and it actually kind of helps me a little bit. I just think that a lot of the shows that I watch, like anime, they teach you a lot of life lessons that you don't normally get or you don't normally recognize when you're just like living life. And the same with books. I just feel like I learn from those characters' experiences and then try to apply it to my life.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.