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Tennis

Coco Gauff Wins A Tense, Endless Mess

11:24 AM EDT on August 29, 2023

Coco Gauff tells umpire Marijana Veljovic to call a time violation against her opponent, Laura Siegemund, at the U.S. Open
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

FLUSHING, N.Y. Asked on court to assess her first-round victory at the U.S. Open, Coco Gauff offered one word: "Slow." Her match against qualifier Laura Siegemund lasted two hours and 51 minutes, and not entirely for good reasons. Siegemund's repertoire of slices, chips, and net rushes did harry the No. 6 seed Gauff, and there were furiously contested, multiple-deuce games, including a 25-minute game to open the second set. But it was Siegemund's languid recoveries between points that dragged this 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 match to such maddening lengths.

Some would call it gamesmanship. Siegemund said it was just the pace a 35-year-old player needs to recover. In any case, time became the central character in a match that secretly contained a lot of great tennis. Gauff, who is more self-possessed than the average 19-year-old, uncharacteristically lit up umpire Marijana Veljovic for being hesitant to police her opponent's time violations; Siegemund also went at the umpire in defense of her approach. Things got ugly afterward. As the German left the court, she refused to shake the umpire's hand and held up an "OK" sign, which is apparently a rude gesture back home.

Much of that ugliness was supplied by the spectators, because the crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium famously loves to act as ultimate judge. On TV, it's often hard to discern how thoroughly the psychology of a match is shaped by the whims of its audience. In this instance, supporting a home favorite—Gauff might be the Open's chosen daughter for the foreseeable future—the crowd ruled against Siegemund. They vigorously booed the German's faults and cheered her time-related penalties. Love of one player and antipathy toward another is more powerful than either one in isolation; it adds up to ear-battering volume levels. While it wasn't quite the volume of Serena's last stand, it was closer than I expected, and not as pure and joyous as all that noise. There was plenty of tennis worthy of more wholesome appreciation, and occasionally, they did appreciate it.

Gauff said in post-match press that this was an exercise in "winning ugly," which is the pet philosophy of Brad Gilbert, a veteran coach (and blissed-out TV commentator) she added to her box in August. Within a month, the collaboration has already proved fruitful: Gauff won titles in Washington and Cincinnati, beat her bugaboo Iga Swiatek for the first time in eight matches, and arrived at the U.S. Open with more match momentum than any player on tour. She said before the tournament that the key wasn't always the novelty of Gilbert's insight so much as his relaxed style: "The way that he says it. Sometimes it's not always about the message. I don't think the message has changed for me, it's more about how the message was relayed to me."

Gauff is playing the sharpest tennis of her deceptively long pro career, tapping into her tour-best movement, hitting her big serve with precision, and shoring up her historically weaker forehand. But she wasn't anywhere near perfect when she began his match. Her Open could've ended prematurely had she not managed to troubleshoot her veteran opponent's "quirky" game and outlast her physically. "Every Grand Slam, you have one bad match. I'm glad I was able to get that out of the way in the first round," Gauff said afterward.

Siegemund's feelings after the match were less sunny. She wept throughout her press conference. While she said she had a pre-existing bad relationship with Veljovic, she mostly denounced the crowd, which she said was unlike any she's seen elsewhere: "This kind of unfair, respect-less behavior toward a non-American player, I have only experienced on this court."

"They treated me like a cheater, like I was trying sneaky ways to win this match or something. They treated me like I was a bad person," Siegemund said. "I have a feeling they just want to push you down. They just want the other one to win so bad, I mean, they're fucking sneezing when you're tossing, clapping when you miss a first serve. I mean, what is that? The only thing is they want to get in your head."

The 35-year-old also defended her slow pace of a play. "I'm not the youngest anymore. If there are long rallies, I struggle physically a little bit. I need 25 seconds to rest. And I also sweat a lot and need to go to the towel," she said. "That's something in the rules, I get my time violation, that's fine."

Siegemund's spiciest contention was that there's a "two-class system" in terms of how those rules are applied. "I'm sure if Coco was taking that much time it wouldn't be an issue, you know what I mean? There are players that take a long time and it is up the umpire when they press the clock. ... I don't want to say any names now, but names they want to keep in the tournament—they press the clock when they are finished rubbing the grip off and they go back." There's some truth here, as umpires do have discretion about when they start the serve clock. To take the most notorious example in tennis: Space is always made for Rafael Nadal's endless between-point rituals, while that same grace is not always afforded to the journeyman he's chewing up in the first round.

"But at the end of the day, I've got to take responsibility and I've got to be faster," Siegemund said to conclude her presser. There's truth to that, too. In her post-match session, Gauff reflected on a moment when her opponent sat down before they were due for a changeover, and said, correctly, that endurance is just part of tennis. Gauff said she plays at an average pace and tried to be patient before addressing the umpire; she estimated seven uncalled time violations before she piped up. Veljovic's enforcement did change after Gauff advocated for herself, and Siegemund even received a point penalty to lose the sixth game of the deciding set.

I asked Gauff what it's like to be on court when the crowd is turning against your opponent so vocally. Is it distracting, confusing, weirdly motivating? She said she tried to tamp down the crowd's jeering of her opponent's missed serves early in the match, and that she doesn't draw much energy from booing.

"But then when it came to the time violation stuff, I feel like you as a player know the situation and also she knows, like, I'm American. I didn't want to tell the crowd to calm down, to be honest, because I know that they were seeing what everybody else was seeing," Gauff said. "At that point, it's sports, it's New York City, I'm not going to try to calm that down." After this bizarre match, and a very slow journey on a 7 train so full that I couldn't lower my hands to my pockets, this reporter can confirm: It is indeed New York City.

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