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Tennis

Coco Gauff Met The Hype And Thanked Her Haters

2:31 PM EDT on September 10, 2023

Coco Gauff kisses the 2023 U.S. Open trophy
Frey/TPN/Getty Images

FLUSHING, N.Y. — The first I heard about Coco Gauff, the 19-year-old U.S. Open champion, was just idle chatter about prodigy. A girl in Florida was serving preternatural bombs, I overheard at a tournament, or read on a message board, or both. Soon enough, there were official numbers to substantiate the rumors. Competing as a 14-year-old at junior Wimbledon in 2018, Coco clocked a serve at 120 mph. That wasn't just the fastest serve in the girls' tournament; it would've been the third-fastest serve in that year's women's tournament, behind only Serena and Venus Williams—a bit of symbolism that hits you over the head about as that serve would. In 2019, Gauff qualified for grown-up Wimbledon and upset Venus in the first round, locking in eyeballs and expectations for the rest of her professional life.

Fans have spent the years since wondering not if but when Coco would deliver the way those predecessors had. Perhaps, during those years, Gauff heard from all the haters and non-believers whom she would credit as motivation in her Saturday victory speech. It was, admittedly, startling to hear about the existence of an anti-Coco faction. But I'll never doubt the internet's capacity for malice, and I have to respect an athlete who knows how to rummage around for whatever fuels them, even if that's a pre-match survey of anonymous eggs. If you've ever wondered how a zoomer incarnation of Serena or MJ might have readied themselves for war, here lies your answer:

"Literally up until, like, 10 minutes before the match, I was just reading comments of people saying I wasn't going to win today," Gauff said, laughing, her trophy on the table in front of her. "That just put the fire in me."

That was fire enough to get a 2-6, 6-3, 6-2 comeback over No. 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka in Saturday night's final, in front of a crowd that showed up desperate to ignite. The horde in Arthur Ashe Stadium got what it showed up for: the first teenage American champ since Serena.

Those who tuned in to the final to see Gauff for the first time might not have known that Saturday was the culmination of a full month of Coco dominance, from Washington (her first 500-level title), to Cincinnati (her first 1000-level title), to the Open, her first major title, as big a prize as tennis offers. Gauff's path to the trophy was a gauntlet: a veteran playing ugly; a fellow teen prodigy; veterans playing beautifully; an infamous bomb-thrower who'd just blown up the top seed; a fellow top-10 seed; and, finally, Sabalenka, who played the majors better than any woman this year, and will be crowned world No. 1 next week. There's not much else to prove. For all the pundit talk about the holes in Gauff's game—the forehand can get wonky—she has every other tool a tennis player could want. If Gauff can win the U.S. Open without a fully operational forehand, then the rest of the tour should pray she never irons it out.

The central question of the matchup was whether Gauff would be able to handle Sabalenka's barrage from the baseline. Coco knew as much going in. "I knew she was going to go out there swinging, and I knew that I wasn't going to be able to win this match the way I like to play," she said in press. "I don't like to play the way that I played today. Running around the court, it's fun, but, you know, it's not as fun as hitting winners." She might not have enjoyed playing the scrappy pest, but I can't deny the entertainment value. During the best points in this final, I realized I would be content if every tennis match consisted of just this: Sabalenka smiting the ball from mid-court, and Gauff scuttling around to make her hit one more ball, then another, and then one more ball still, in an increasingly outlandish display of resolve.

There might not be a better smash-retriever than Gauff, who has the balance to change direction when the ball's hit against her momentum, plus the raw foot speed and racquet face control to block back shots that would have otherwise bounced up into the money seats. That took a psychological toll on Sabalenka, and, after the match, she chalked up her own catastrophic error count to Gauff's movement and her own overthinking. Defense this intense has a way of "shrinking" the court for the opponent, goading them to attack with even finer margins.

After Sabalenka overpowered Gauff in the first set, the air went out of the stadium. Acutely aware of the scouting report on Gauff—rush her on the forehand—she initially profited from sending ball after ball into that side of the court. The pivot point I sensed at the time, and that Gauff herself referenced afterward, was a single otherworldly passing shot at 2-1 in the second set. Sabalenka had aligned her offense to perfection: huge serve down the T, heavy approach to Gauff's weaker side, slick volley into open space. That would have been a well-earned hold in most scenarios, but not against Coco, who teleported into the doubles alley to sweep the ball cross court. Sabalenka applauded the winner; the crowd roared awake for the first time in a half hour; even the credentialed guy near me, who spent the entirety of this three-set match streaming college football, appeared to dimly register the masterstroke before him. Gauff broke serve in that game and held that edge to win the second set.

(One of the early notes I made in my notebook during the match: "I dunno if Coco's attritional strategy can work." She proceeded to prove me wrong for the next hour. If Coco's camp would like to pay me for these skeptical notes, as future title fuel, I am open to negotiating a price.)

In recent matches, Gauff has figured out a way to de-risk her forehand, looping floaty balls deep into the court, and in this matchup, that tactic made it harder for Sabalenka to attack and step inside the baseline. Even if it's not a permanent solution, it was more than sufficient to keep this particular opponent uneasy. Sabalenka never recovered her lethal timing on the ball, swapped out her racquets several times in quick succession to find a fix, but she continued spraying her forehand for the remainder of the match. The 28,143-strong crowd also carried its weight, giving their antagonist the U.S. Open special—open cheering for every missed first serve, outright clamor for a double-fault—and willing their favorite along.

Gauff's tennis only got steadier as the most significant title of her life loomed into view. She opened the third set with four straight games, earning herself a cushion in case Sabalenka managed to break back—which she did indeed do, after a strategically timed medical timeout—only for Gauff to break back once more and serve out the championship. By the last game, Sabalenka was cooked, attempting shots well outside her comfort zone and floundering. Gauff went up 40-0. A trademark backhand passing shot finished the job. Then came the tears, the hugs, the chills.

For all the emphasis Gauff and her camp have put on developing her offense this summer, this was, in the end, a match won with her defining strength: "defending better than anybody else," as Sabalenka put it. Gauff at 19 plays something like an evolutionary Simona Halep, gifted with that patience and mobility, but bigger, faster, with sharper serves and volleys. She has lots of time to refine the forehand. And there will be competitive pressure to do so, on a tour as full of top-flight talent as it's been in years, with players like Sabalenka, Iga Swiatek, and Elena Rybakina playing bold tennis that punishes passivity. But again—look how far the existing package has already taken Gauff. Sometimes dwelling on weaknesses is purely academic. The strongest available counterargument is hardware.

One eerie thing about prodigies is the way they seem to have packed the highs and lows of a whole middle-aged life into the space before age 20. Gauff has spoken clearly about her emotional lulls, one of which followed her first-round exit at Wimbledon in July. "I just felt like people were, like, 'Oh, she's hit her peak and she's done. It was all hype.' I see the comments. People don't think I see it but I see it. I'm very aware of tennis Twitter. I know y'all's usernames, so I know who's talking trash and I can't wait to look on Twitter right now," she said, laughing. "I wish I could give this trophy to my past self so she can be, like, all those tears are for this moment." You heard Coco. This first major trophy goes out to the doubters, the eggs, the people who thought they were spraying water only to discover it was gasoline, and her younger self.

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