Copying US Open star Coco Gauff’s forehand was a disaster

When Gatorade first rolled out the “Be Like Mike” ads in the 1990s, maybe they should have included a disclaimer: If you’re old enough to be Michael Jordan’s grandfather, don’t try to be like Mike.

It’s certainly advice I could have used. However, I wasn’t trying to be like Mike. I tried to be like Coco Gauff and that got me into physical therapy.

Gauff is one of the world’s best tennis players. She’s 18 too. So yeah, I could be her grandfather.

I hadn’t been watching the prodigy too closely until this May, when she put on a surprise run at the French Open and crushed her opponents on her way to the final.

She is a fascinating player. With an angular, muscular physique and a determined, slightly squinting gait, she exudes a sense of purpose. It seems the only question is when, not if, she will start winning majors. Before or after she’s old enough to drink?

As she plays, Coco follows the ball with wide saucer eyes that remind me of the 49ers great Roger Craig from the 1980s, whose eyes became large cartoon characters as he approached the line of scrimmage, looking for a hole in defense through which he could walk.

However, the trait of Gauff that I found most striking was her forehand. As her body rotated with high backswing, she would chase the ball and then roll on the swing, her wrist snapping on contact, whipping the racquet across her body and the ball shooting into an untouchable spot on the far side of the net. I was fascinated.

That forehand, I decided, would be my future on the tennis court.

Unfortunately, I’m just good enough at tennis to imagine a ridiculous version of what happened. The really old guys that I often play alongside would never try. They shuffle around on their (mostly) substituted knees and hips, happy just to be outside.

As a budding old man who refuses to admit that I’m like those really old guys, I have delusions of grandeur. For some reason I decided to imitate Coco was the way to go.

And for a while, the plan actually worked.

I started twisting my shoulders with a high racquet return, my offhand chasing the ball and then hitting with the full power of my kinetic chain. Yes, my kinetic chain. This was something I had only read about and suddenly I unleashed it.

My shot gained speed about 20mph and loads of spin. The ball landed and seemed to take off on impact, and everything fell near the baseline.

Not that anyone would confuse me with Gauff, but the small group of 50 and 60 year olds I play with noticed that something was different. For a few weeks I felt like the king of my very small tennis world.

And then one day, as quickly as it started, it was over. When I woke up on July 4th of all days, I couldn’t raise my arm. My shoulder jerked as I tried to pull a shirt over my head. Rather than aspire to be Coco, I was just hoping to be someone who can lift a bag of groceries. I had no idea what to do.

So of course I did the absolute stupidest thing: I went to play tennis.

It hurt like hell. I always had to operate the racket with two hands. But I still refused to stop because my partner and I ended up paying to reserve a seat. And so my injury, whatever I had, worsened, confirming something I had long suspected — aging doesn’t necessarily bring wisdom or sound judgment.

Another point against the wisdom of age: The injury was not exactly a shock. The balls and sockets of my shoulder are pretty much in forced marriage. They seem to have little interest in a life together. On a few occasions, they even broke up for no reason. Long before Gauff mania, I would be awakened in the middle of the night by the need to wedge my arm back into my body after he tried to escape quietly.

Is there an actual age at which people should stop changing their swings, grips, or gait when playing sports? Everyone is different but perhaps it should follow the line if you do this once and it results in serious bodily harm stop immediately.

My folly continued with my rehab. Again, my approach demonstrated the non-correlation between sound judgment and age. I figured I could heal myself using the same physical therapy exercises as I had previously had shoulder injuries – see above.

So, as you might expect, these exercises only made things worse because this injury appeared to be in a different part of the shoulder than the others.

The physiotherapist, whom I consulted belatedly, understood that I hurt myself trying to punch like Coco. What pissed him off was the exercises I was doing; he actually yelled “NOEEE!” at me.

Which was kind of irritating. And then he gave me a complete list of exercises to follow faithfully. And so far the progress seems good enough that I think I’ll play again at some point, hopefully before I just have to replace the whole joint.

Coco Gauff has no idea about that, I assume. Our non-reciprocal relationship continues as it has from the beginning. And that’s obviously for the better. The distraction of my problems could derail her progress towards winning a major championship just one day, maybe even at the US Open where she has endured two rounds of opponents so far. (She meets fellow Americans Madison Keys on Friday in hopes of progressing to the round of 16.)

So while I struggle to get the ice cream out of the freezer, I’ll be cheering her on from the couch and vowing not to repeat the fool’s mistake of trying to copy one of her strokes. On the other hand, if I can suddenly raise my arm above my head…

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