‘I’m a little bit in shock’: Coco Gauff’s magical run to the US Open title

NEW YORK — The first time Coco Gauff played on Arthur Ashe Stadium ended in tears.

It was 2019 and she had arrived in New York fresh off of her star-making run at Wimbledon as a 15-year-old qualifier. Suddenly everyone knew who she was, and fans had circled a potential third-round meeting with Naomi Osaka, the defending champion, as soon as the draw was released. The hype was deafening.

But the match did not live up to expectations. Osaka needed just 65 minutes and Gauff won only three games. The tears were streaming down Gauff’s face within seconds of the final point.

It was what happened next that went viral at the time and has since recirculated around the internet over the past several days. Osaka, then 21, went over to Gauff to console her and tell her it was okay to cry. She invited Gauff to join her during the post-match interview, typically reserved for just the winner, and in front of 23,000 captivated fans, Gauff spoke to ESPN’s Mary Joe Fernandez as her voice broke with emotion.

“[Osaka] told me I did amazing and good luck, and then she asked if I could do the on-court interview with her. I said no because I knew I was going to cry the whole time but she encouraged me to do it. She did amazing, and I’m going to learn a lot from this match.”

Four years after that fateful meeting, Gauff was in tears again on Ashe. But this time, it was tears of joy.

On Saturday, the 19-year-old defeated soon-to-be world No. 1 and reigning Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, to win the first major of her career. She struggled with Sabalenka’s power in the opening set, but she found her rhythm and fought back for the victory.

When it was over, she fell to the ground. As she lay on her back on the court, she put her hands on her face and sobbed. There were then hugs, and more tears, with her parents — Gauff later said she had never seen her father cry before — and the rest of her team.

She then spoke to the crowd, again, with Fernandez.

“Oh my goodness, it means so much to me,” Gauff said. “I feel like I’m a little bit in shock in this moment … But I realized God puts you through tribulations and trials and that makes this moment even sweeter than I could have imagined.”

Gauff is now the youngest American to win the US Open since Serena Williams in 1999 and the fourth teenage American in the Open era to win the home Slam. And she did so on the anniversary of both Arthur Ashe’s breakthrough US Open victory in 1968 and Venus Williams‘ maiden title at the event in 2000.

While still possessing the same teenage exuberance and tenacity that had initially endeared her to fans, Gauff now possesses the game and mental maturity of a seasoned veteran. Others, like Emma Raducanu in 2021, have gone from near obscurity to the game’s highest ranks nearly overnight and struggled in the sudden intense glare of the spotlight. Gauff has more gradually made her way to the top, easing herself into celebrity and expectations. Before the 2023 season got underway, she had already won three WTA singles titles, reached the 2022 French Open final and cracked the top 10, as well as reached the world No. 1 doubles ranking.

In addition to the success, she’s found perspective along the way.

“At first I used to think negative things, like, ‘Why is there so much pressure, why is this so hard?,” Gauff said this week. “I realize in a way it’s pressure but it’s not. I mean, there are people struggling to feed their families, people who don’t know where their next meal is going to come from, people who have to pay their bills. That’s real pressure, that’s real hardship, that’s real life.

“I’m in a very privileged position, I’m getting paid to do what I love and getting support to do what I love. That’s something that I don’t take for granted… I have a lucky life and so I should enjoy it. I know there are millions of people who probably want to be in this position that I am now, so instead of saying why this, why that, I should just be, like, ‘Why not me? Why am I not enjoying this?’ I should.”

This summer everything has come together for Gauff. After suffering a disappointing first-round loss at Wimbledon in July, she regrouped. She brought on Pere Riba as her coach and Brad Gilbert, the former coach of Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick, as a consultant. The new team came together quickly — and the results were just as fast.

In their first tournament together at the 500-level Citi Open in Washington D.C., Gauff cruised through the draw and won her then-biggest title to date. Before August was over, she emerged victorious again at the 1000-level Western & Southern Open, earning a win over world No. 1 Iga Swiatek, for the first time in eight tries, in the semifinals. Gauff had an 11-1 record in her three events during the summer hardcourt season leading into the US Open.

While Gauff had always been seen as a contender — prematurely or not — she arrived in New York last month as perhaps the favorite for the first time in her career. If she felt the pressure of such expectations, she never showed it. She has played every match of her 2023 campaign at Arthur Ashe, the world’s biggest tennis stadium. Even when she needed to fight back after dropping the first set — like she did in the final, as well as in her first- and third-round matches — or to hold off a sentimental crowd favorite like she did in the fourth round against Caroline Wozniacki, Gauff’s grit and determination never wavered.

In the four matches in which she needed a decider, Gauff lost a combined seven games in the final set. She became the first woman to come back from a set down in three matches, then go on to win the US Open title, since Williams in 1999.

“I think she’s always been a great athlete, she’s always had the backhand, the serve, the fighting spirit,” Wozniacki said after their 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 clash last week. “I feel like right now it’s all kind of coming together for her.”

Sabalenka said Gauff played “unbelievable” during her post-match interview, and said she believed there would be “many more [titles] to come” for Gauff.

While others, like Swiatek, the defending champion, fell early, Gauff withheld upsets and distractions. During her semifinal match against Karolina Muchova on Thursday, she remained focused despite a talented opponent and a 50-minute delay due to a protestor who had glued his feet to the ground in the stands.

On Saturday, Gauff had a nervy start and was broken in the first game of the match. She simply had no answers for Sabalenka in the opening set. But she raised her level and the crowd roared with every “Come on!” yell and fist pump. In the deciding set, she took immediate control, jumping to a 4-0 lead, and gave Sabalenka little opportunity to find her way back into the match.

Gilbert couldn’t hide his happiness. “I’m so f—— proud of you,” he said when she ran over to embrace her team.

For many, a major title has seemed inevitable for Gauff since her junior days, and she’s been long talked about as part of the next generation of the sport’s brightest stars. Gauff will rise to a new career-high ranking of No. 3 on Monday. Former president Barack Obama was among the first to congratulate her after the match.

But despite all of the expectations, Gauff said it was actually those who hadn’t believed in her that gave her motivation.

“A month ago, I won a 500 title and people said, I would stop at that,” Gauff told the crowd. “Two weeks ago, I won a 1000 title and people were saying that was the biggest it was going to get. So three weeks later, I’m here with this trophy right now.

“I’ve tried my best to carry this with grace and I’ve been doing my best. So honestly, to those who thought they were putting water on my fire, you were really adding gas to it. And now I’m really burning so bright right now.”

While she wasn’t there on Saturday, Osaka — who is currently sidelined from competition after giving birth to her daughter in July — was in attendance for Gauff’s victory over Muchova. Her presence at a site so familiar to both of them brought their 2019 meeting back to the forefront, and even introduced the moment to a whole new generation of fans on TikTok and other social media platforms.

For Gauff, it was a reminder of just how far she has come.

“It definitely feels like so long ago,” Gauff said. “I wish I had told myself [to] just enjoy the moment and playing on Ashe. … Sometimes I would get a game and I remember just being relieved that I got a game and not really embracing it. Yeah, [four] years later, I think now I’m having way more fun now than I was [four] years ago.”

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