Queens Roared, And Coco Gauff Roared Back
1:47 PM EDT on September 8, 2023
FLUSHING, N.Y. — If memory serves, there was a lot of hand-wringing in the tennis world about whether anyone would bother turning up for the U.S. Open after Roger Federer and Serena Williams retired last year. For one thing, that worry overestimates the camp of people who come to the Open to see a particular superstar, and underestimates the camp that's there to savor the hospitality of a treasured business partner, indifferent to the names on the scoreboard. For another, those old fogeys and their 43 combined majors have been replaced seamlessly by an ultra-charismatic zoomer. The 19-year-old Coco Gauff has been agitating Arthur Ashe Stadium to that familiar white-hot, almost staticky decibel level earned by the greats. That clamor was the soundtrack to her 6-4, 7-5 semifinal defeat of Karolina Muchova on Thursday night. All tournament, the No. 6 seed Gauff has been building a case for her own future legend.
Gauff had a steady 2023 season, but only in August did she ratchet herself up into the tier of Open contenders. She won titles in D.C. and Cincinnati. She finally defeated tour autocrat Iga Swiatek for the first time in eight matchups. (Swiatek's 75-week reign at No. 1 ends next week; she'll be replaced by Gauff's final opponent in New York, Aryna Sabalenka.) Coco's most obvious tennis gifts are a sprinter's blazing movement and a serve that has occasionally crossed the 120-mph threshold. But she could still be beaten by players with more baseline polish and aggressive point construction. In the last month, her game has begun to transcend its defensive origins, as she worked through a well-known weakness on her forehand side and played the aggressor with more frequency and flair. Her goal from here will be to turn her speed from an insurance policy into a proactive weapon.
Gauff's Open run began with a grimy war against a slow-moving Laura Siegemund (and the umpire, too). It eased up with a straightforward second-round win over 16-year-old Mirra Andreeva, who is a few years behind her on the teen prodigy trail and not yet equipped to challenge the No. 6 seed. Next up were a pair of tricky three-set tests against the veteran Elise Mertens and the freshly un-retired former great Caroline Wozniacki. In that latter match, Gauff told famously voluble new coach Brad Gilbert to "stop talking"; she took care of the remainder by herself, in peace.
A quarterfinal matchup against Jelena Ostapenko could've been a headache, given that the No. 20 seed had just blown away Swiatek in the previous round, sustaining her mystifying undefeated record against the four-time major champ. Instead, Gauff won 6-0, 6-2 while her foe painted mostly outside the lines. Any match where Ostapenko's timing is off can feel queasy and arrhythmic; the ball is constantly stuck in the bottom of the net and neither player looks like they've warmed up by the conclusion of the first set. Gauff ably handled all that mess, and saved critical points in their deuce-filled second set. "Honestly, I was expecting a little bit more from her today," said Ostapenko of Gauff, after losing their match in 68 minutes, radiating her characteristic grace in defeat. Gauff said in a press conference afterward that it had been her "hardest run to a quarterfinal stage" yet, but that she felt "physically fresh and emotionally fresh," crediting this to the "mental endurance" she built up during her win-heavy August. She also said she'd been learning to have more fun on court, which comes a lot more naturally when there are 20,000-odd sloshed partygoers on your side.
The semifinal against No. 10 seed Muchova had its complications, including a nearly hour-long delay in play due to a climate change protest where a guy superglued his bare feet to the stadium. Both players left the court for much of that stretch, then warmed up all over again upon their return. Muchova, a free-roaming technician who can end points anywhere on the court, started the match slow, but looked much fiercer after the delay, playing brilliantly in high-pressure points. Gauff tightened up in the closing stretch, too. But she managed to steady her hands in a gutting 40-shot exchange in the 12th and final game of the set. "I knew that if I could win that rally, I felt like that next match point was going to go my way, because I don't think she could have did back-to-back rallies like that," she said later. "I knew that next match point, if I were to win she was definitely going to go for a winner or miss. That's what happened." On the sixth match point, Muchova sent a backhand sailing, and Gauff roared.
Coco has been to a major final already, at Roland-Garros in 2022, where she was demolished by Swiatek. She said that her previous run to a final felt like a surprise, but this one comes with more self-belief. Her opponent, soon-to-be world No. 1 Aryna Sabalenka, has plenty of self-belief, too, topped up by a comeback semifinal win against Madison Keys. Sabalenka has played the majors better than any player this season, winning her first Slam in Melbourne and making semifinals in Paris and London. She's been hitting the heaviest ball on tour. Gauff will have to find a way to neutralize that baseline assault, though she can draw some confidence from a 3-2 edge in previous matchups.
About an hour after Gauff's match ended, I stopped at a vendor in Ashe, only to be denied a pizza because they were closing shop. But I did see her dad, Corey, sipping a celebratory Heineken, awash in the glow of someone who could really get used to these U.S. Open runs.