Gauff's US Open breakthrough
The Gauffs and their only daughter have long dreamed big. When Coco was 4 years old, she told her father she wanted to be the greatest of all time and, by age 12, she was sharing that goal with reporters.
She was talking about tennis, of course, and GOAT status was and remains a moonshot considering how much champions like Serena Williams and Martina Navratilova accomplished before calling it a day.
But by any reasonable measure, Gauff, now 19, has done wonderfully well in a grinding, demanding sport where expectations, obligations and routine can so quickly snuff out the inherent joys of world travel and chasing after a tennis ball. Since becoming a star at Wimbledon at age 15, Gauff has walked the tightrope and stayed aloft with only the occasional wobble as she acquired experience along with quite a few sponsors and even a few titles.
It has not been the rocket-ship rise to the top that some expected when she was dominating junior tennis and swooping to the net in her very early teens. But neither has it been anything close to a cautionary tale.
For that, her parents Corey and Candi deserve considerable credit. They heard and believed very early that their daughter was a future champion. They adjusted and sometimes struggled. But they have raised a well-rounded person not just an all-court tennis player while raising two younger sons, and it was deeply moving and also something of a relief to see their against-the-odds family project come to fruition on Saturday at the US Open.
To see Coco sobbing with joy shortly after hitting the running backhand passing shot that secured her first Grand Slam senior title with a 2-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory over Aryna Sabalenka.
To hear the court-quaking roars of support in sold-out Arthur Ashe Stadium for an American champion but also an African-American champion whose talent, social awareness and poise would surely have resonated with Ashe.
To watch Coco climb into the stands to join her parents in a tearful, powerful three-way embrace.
“That was the first time I’ve seen my dad cry,” Coco told ESPN. “At the French Open, he claims he wasn’t crying, so I’ll just believe that, but today I was up close and saw it. I rarely see my mom cry either….My God, that moment, I won’t forget, like, ever.”
As they embraced, Candi Gauff screamed, “You did it!”
Coco did it with speed, running down Sabalenka’s full-blast groundstrokes and overheads to extend rallies.
Coco did it with composure, shrugging off a muted, passive start and keeping her eyes on the prize, even when Sabalenka took a dubious medical time-out to have her left leg massaged late in the third set before Gauff was to serve.
Coco did it with grit, hustling and willing her way out of big trouble into a much deeper groove and becoming only the second woman in the last 29 years to rally from a set down to win the US Open singles title.
Coco also did it, let’s be honest, with plenty of help from Sabalenka, who will become No. 1 for the first time on Monday but will surely find that occasion bittersweet as she reflects on the major that got away.
Sabalenka 25, opened the final imperiously and for much of the first set and a half, Gauff was reacting much more than acting, clinging to the lifeboat while Sabalenka, with her massive power and imposing presence, generated all the weather.
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The first set went quickly and the second set might have gone rather quickly, too, if Sabalenka had converted either of the break points she had on Gauff’s serve in the opening game. But Gauff, slicing and scrambling, dodged the danger and then dodged some more after double faulting on the first point of her next service game.
She was up 2-1 and then with Sabalenka serving at 40-30, Gauff did something special: She used her world-class wheels to track down a good volley and smack a backhand passing shot winner crosscourt at an acute angle. Sabalenka could only applaud and then proceeded to lose her serve two points later on a double fault.
Gauff was launched and she broke Sabalenka again to start the third set, this time chasing down a ball that had died in the forecourt after clipping the net and then putting away a leaping overhead. She continued to pick up altitude from there, generating pace and precision out of the corners on the run and cutting down on the errors as Sabalenka’s continued to pile up.
For all the legitimate concern about Gauff’s shaky forehand through the years, it was Sabalenka’s shaky forehand that decided this final. Yes, Gauff’s quickness and ability to reboot points made Sabalenka hit closer to the lines, but the Belarusian also missed rally balls from mid-court with ample open space in front of her, botched volleys on top of the net and surrendered the momentum at different stages of this fraught final.
Sabalenka remained a threat but finished with 46 unforced errors to Gauff’s 19: a far cry from Sabalenka’s risk-reward ratio in the high-quality Australian Open final she won in January against Elena Rybakina.
That gave Sabalenka her first major singles title, but in her second, she had to face the crowd as well as Gauff. She got rattled, and Gauff is now the youngest American woman to win the US Open since 17-year-old Serena Williams in 1999.
Gauff is hardly the first teenager to triumph at Flushing Meadows since then. Maria Sharapova, now retired and in attendance on Saturday, won the title in 2006 at age 19. Bianca Andreescu won at the same age in 2019 and, in the biggest surprise by far, Emma Raducanu won at 18 in 2021, becoming the first qualifier in tennis history to win a major singles title.
Tennis is a sport of prodigies, and it does not always go well. Andreescu and Raducanu have yet to come close to matching their runs in New York, struggling with injuries, the fallout from their precocious success and perhaps their own limitations.
“Sometimes I think to myself I wish I’d never won the US Open,” Raducanu told the Sunday Times this year.
Amanda Anisimova, another American prodigy who defeated Gauff in the 2017 US Open girls final and reached the 2019 French Open semifinal at age 17, is now out of the game, taking an indefinite break for her mental health.
It is hard to imagine Gauff in a similar place. Yes, she became a star in a hurry, emerging from qualifying at Wimbledon 2019 and beating five-time champion Venus Williams in her first Grand Slam singles match on her way to the fourth round. Cocomania was raucous and real, but her rise since then has been more steady than meteoric, which should be a blessing.
She did not reach her first Grand Slam singles quarterfinal until 2021, did not break into the top 10 until 2022 when she reached the French Open final shortly after graduating from on-line high school and lost in a hurry to Swiatek.
“Today, I told myself regardless of the result my family is still going to love me, my life is still going to be great,” she said. “I think at the French, I literally thought my life was going to end. I realized that it didn’t. I’m happy I was able to go out there today and just enjoy the moment.”
Gauff might be 19, but she is a 19-year-old veteran who has paid some dues and been able to adjust at a reasonable pace to celebrity as players not much older than Gauff like Naomi Osaka and Iga Swiatek have dominated the majors and the coverage.
Though Gauff has been No. 1 in the world in doubles and will return to that spot on Monday along with her regular partner Jessica Pegula, Gauff had never won a WTA singles title above the lowest 250 level until this summer.
But after losing in the opening round of Wimbledon, Gauff and her family further shook up her team, bringing in Brad Gilbert as a consultant to join Pere Riba, who had recently been hired as Gauff’s coach.
“Big changes did not need to be made for quick things to happen,” Gilbert told me on Saturday.
Gauff told ESPN that her father Corey, long her primary coach, was the one who pushed for the new team. “He said, it’s time; I can’t do it anymore,” she said.
“I didn’t know B.G.,” Gauff said of the 62-year-old Gilbert. “He’s from another generation. But he’s helped me so much, and Pere has helped me so much.”
Gauff immediately won her first WTA 500 title in Washington, D.C.. Before the tournament was over, Gilbert, 62, a former player who coached Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick to major singles titles before Gauff was born, told his ESPN colleague Mary Joe Fernandez that Gauff was going to win the US Open.
“Four days after I started with her I told Mary Joe, and she was like, ‘It’s too soon, don’t say that,’” Gilbert told me. “But I was in my hotel room, and I circled the night of the US Open final. I had a great feeling she was going to be there. She’s a great kid. She’s really humble, and the thing she discovered most importantly was how to win when she was average, and she’s never done that before.
“Once I started with her, all I got was a million texts about fix her forehand, and that’s all everybody was talking about, and I never even thought about that for one moment. She has so many other qualities. It didn’t even need to be discussed.”
The goal was to strengthen her strengths, and after losing to Pegula in Canada, Gauff went to Cincinnati, Ohio and won her first WTA 1000 title, defeating her nemesis Swiatek for the first time along the way.
She arrived in New York full of new belief along with a more reliable forehand and a commitment to hitting bigger first serves. She fought her way through the draw, winning four matches in three sets, including her feisty first round against Laura Siegemund in which Gauff uncharacteristically sparred with the chair umpire for not penalizing Siegemund’s slow pace of play.
Gauff also barked at Gilbert, asking for quiet instead of constant coaching during her fourth-round victory over Caroline Wozniacki. Instead of extending rallies, she went for more and closed out the victory.
“Sometimes stuff happens,” Gilbert said. “It’s okay. Part of that is the stress. That match all of the sudden became really tough. She was down a quick break, 1-0 in the third, and Wozniacki was playing well. She had to battle her ass off to get through that match.”
After all, who wants to coach a robot? You want a player with the confidence to take command and follow their instincts if the inner voice is convincing enough.
“Totally,” said Gilbert, the co-author of the classic tennis book “Winning Ugly”. “I mean she problem-solved all tournament. There were numerous matches she had to turn around. Before, sometimes she didn’t find her way out. One of my mottos is live to see another day, live to see another match, and listen, winning ugly is winning ugly but learning how to find a way makes you learn a lot about yourself.
“Today, she found a way in the second set when she wasn’t at her best. She was down and down on herself, but she didn’t let it define her. And then she just dug in. It was a big hold, that first game of the second. Ultimately, she wore Sabalenka down, which she’s been doing all summer, using her legs a lot more, playing with a lot more shape. She had numerous matches where girls got tired against her.”
The forehand is still not a strength, but when she needed it most in recent weeks, it did not break down even when Sabalenka, like so many of Gauff’s opponents, targeted it repeatedly.
Since Wimbledon, Gauff is 18-1, and though she endearingly talked in New York about “imposter syndrome” and feeling not quite sure that she belonged at this elite level, she now has glittering confirmation to the contrary and will rise to a career-high No. 3 in the singles rankings.
Her victory, because of her background, charisma and youth, will have wide reach, and former president Barack Obama and his successor Joe Biden were quick to congratulate her on social media.
“I think it’s a huge thing for not just tennis but millions of girl athletes, because she’s such a relatable personality and a very authentic and natural personality and it really shines through, even on such a big stage,” said Margie Zesinger, the head of female tennis at IMG Academy, in an interview on Saturday night. “You see the loving relationship she has with her parents and just the appreciation she has for all the team that helped her to get to where she is. It’s just another beautiful story where you know no matter what your background is or where you come from that with perseverance, internal drive and hard work you can reach your goals.”
Good genes and world-class athletic talent certainly don’t hurt either. Her maternal grandfather Eddie Odom was a minor-league baseball player. Corey Gauff was a point guard at Georgia State; Candi Gauff was a gymnast and a high-school state champion in Florida in the heptathlon who became a track-and-field star at Florida State.
But tennis is, above all, a head game, and Gauff has a good head on her shoulders, as she has long made clear in her thoughtful, wide-ranging news conferences and made clear again in her victory speech on Saturday that was a great deal more polished and coherent than Sabalenka’s comments during the trophy ceremony.
Gauff’s first major was hardly her first rodeo, and she spoke extemporaneously with ease. And though she offered thanks to her parents, team and tournament organizers, she also thanked her doubters.
“A month ago, I won a 500 title, and people said I would stop at that; two weeks ago, I won a 1000 title, and people were saying that was the biggest it was going to get,” Gauff said. “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.”
That was quite a riff, and if I’m being honest, it left me, on this upbeat evening, feeling a little melancholy. As someone who has covered Gauff’s pro career from the start and was at Wimbledon in 2019, my sense is that the tennis community learned a lot from previous mistakes and, being well aware of the risks, handled Gauff’s emergence and early career with care and an appropriate emphasis on process over destination.
Those within the sport gave her time and space to mature and to falter, but of course what matters most is how Gauff and her family perceived the environment, and in this era, the criticism and doubts can arrive from just about anywhere with social media, drowning out more measured, informed voices.
Gauff clearly picked up on the negativity, and I suppose if it became fuel for her to attain a dream, then her antenna served her well.
She has bigger dreams of course, as she has since she first watched the US Open and the Williams sisters on television and then from the stands. GOAT might be a reach, but greatness is not, and I would be very surprised if her summer of 2023 does not give her wings.
“I think this is only going to make her hungry to get better,” Gilbert told me. “There’s a lot to learn from Djoker and Rafa and Fed and Serena. You keep working harder to get better. You don’t say I gotta win X, Y and Z, or I gotta get this or get that. Everybody else wants to do that, too. You’ve just got to get better. And she’ll put in the work, and great things are gonna happen. She’s only 19.”
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