If American wild card Nicole Gibbs could describe in one word her goal for her third-round match against No. 11 seed Flavia Pennetta, it might be “redemption.” Just one year ago, Gibbs only managed to win two games against the Italian in a 6-0, 6-2 opening-round loss here at the US Open. But a lot has changed since then.
Before the start of the 2014 season, 21-year-old Gibbs revamped her entire game and took her training to another level in order to improve upon her results. Those developments, plus an extra year of experience on tour, have made a difference in how the former Stanford University star mentally approaches the game.
“The difference between this year and last is obviously being a little more seasoned on tour,” she said. “I’m trying not to think as much about wins and losses and more about my big-picture development. I’m playing a completely different game style, I would say, than I was a year ago. I’m much more aggressive inside the court much more often.”
Those changes are already paying dividends, as evidenced by her results this season. A successful summer on the ITF circuit, which included a title at the $50,000 event in Carson, Calif., and reaching the final at the $50,000 event in Louisville, Ky., allowed Gibbs to win the USTA Pro Circuit US Open Wild Card Challenge, which granted her a wild-card entry into the US Open for the third consecutive year.
As a Stanford student, Gibbs had secured spots into both the 2012 and 2013 US Open tournaments by clinching back-to-back NCAA singles titles, a feat that rewards American winners with wild cards into the year's final Grand Slam. Both times, however, she failed to break past the first round.
But this year, she’s taken it two steps further. Shortly after taking out No. 41 Caroline Garcia of France in the first round, Gibbs, currently ranked a career-high No. 135, used her new aggressive offensive play to upset No. 23 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in a tight three-set battle.
As she prepares to face Pennetta on Saturday, all of her hard work and game-changing tactics will be put to the ultimate test as she tries to improve on her result from last year. But regardless of the outcome, it’s safe to say that Gibbs has come a long way in making a successful transition from college to the pro tour.
Unlike a few of her WTA peers, the California native chose the college route at Stanford three years ago, rather than the globe-trotting, unstable environment that comes with joining the WTA as a teenager. And though she opted to forego her senior year as an economics major in order to pursue life on the tour, Gibbs firmly believes in the benefits and viability of playing college tennis before making the jump to a professional level.
“I don’t think I’d be sitting here right now if college wasn’t a viable option. I think everybody has the opportunity to improve there,” she said. “There’s going to be a lifestyle and game-style adjustment that some players, like myself, have to go through to get more offensive minded, more comfortable on the road, and those sorts of things. But I feel like I have a great foundation for adapting to that new strain of stress and new level of tennis having gone to college.”
One thing’s for sure – fans will be seeing a lot more of Gibbs in the future, as she holds legitimate promise as one of the next stars in American women’s tennis. Catch her in action against Pennetta Saturday as she fights to extend her Cinderella story.