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Coco Gauff, new US Open champion, represents the country’s best
She isn’t just an athlete to marvel at; she’s someone relate to and learn from.
Published Sep 10, 2023
NEW YORK—“I don’t know how this is real,” Coco Gauff said as she smiled down at the shiny silver US Open champion’s trophy in front of her. “I hope when I wake up tomorrow, it’s still, like, real.”
Gauff’s road to her first Grand Slam title was, frankly, a little unreal. At Wimbledon in late-June, the 19-year-old took a first-round loss to Sofia Kenin that shook her confidence to the point where she spent the next couple of weeks praying for her tennis future. It shook her father Corey’s confidence so much that he went out and replaced himself on her coaching staff with Brad Gilbert.
Apparently, a little bit of prayer, a little bit of BG—and a lot of her your own talent and drive and level-headed intelligence—can work miracles. Even Gauff sounds kind of dumbfounded by her 180-degree turnaround.
“I think honestly when I had that [loss] at Wimbledon, I was really sort of thinking [of the] off-season and preparing for next year,” she said earlier this week.
Instead of throwing in the towel on 2023, she turned it into the Summer of Coco. With Gilbert and his co-coach Pere Riba in her corner, she compressed half-a-dozen years’ worth of improvement into six quick weeks. Gauff won her first 500-level tournament in Washington, D.C., at the start of August. She won her first 1000-level tournament in Cincinnati three weeks ago. And with her win over Karolina Muchova on Thursday, she reached her second major final.
For about an hour of that final, though, it looked like Coco’s summer would end one day earlier than she hoped. Her opponent, Aryna Sabalenka, played the opening set like the new No. 1 she is. Point after point, Sabelenka looked like a soccer player moving in to take a penalty kick with her forehand, and Gauff looked like a goalie trying to guess which way she would go and hurl her body in that direction. In tennis, it’s usually better to be the penalty taker than the goalie.
But Gauff had won three other three-set matches at this tournament, including two where she lost the first set. She saved two break points in the opening game of the second set, started clicking with her first serve, and brought the crowd to its feet for the first time with a running backhand pass.
Looking back, that shot was a moment of foreshadowing: Gauff would eventually frustrate Sabalenka, and win the title from her, with her nonpareil running and defense.
In the second set, Sabalenka began to miss her forehand, which seemed to give Gauff new hope and help her run down more balls. That in turn put more pressure on Sabalenka to make her shots perfect, and she was far from it. Over the last two sets, it was Gauff the goalie who was guessing right, and Sabalenka the penalty-taker who was missing wildly.
“She was moving just unbelievable today,” said Sabalenka, who finished with 46 errors to Gauff’s 19. “The second set I start probably overthinking, and because of that I start kind of like losing my power. Then she started moving better. I start missing a lot of easy shots.”
Gauff would hit just 13 winners, but she relaxed enough to add some offense to her repertoire in the third set. She broke Sabalenka five times, and showed no signs of nerves, even as she tried to close out her first major in front of 23,000 fans at full roar for her. The winning moment was a fitting one, with Gauff sprinting across the court, firing a backhand pass down the line, and tumbling to the ground in disbelief.
“It doesn’t get more dramatic than that,” she said.
“I was just trying to stay in the match,” Gauff said of how she managed her comeback. “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. 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.”
Gauff won her first major today, but you could see from the celebrity-filled crowd that was gathered, and the congratulations she received from presidents and ex-presidents, that she’s already a superstar. One name—Coco—is all you need to say. She’s not loved to that extent just because she’s a great tennis player; it’s also because of who she is, how she acts, what she says.
This summer it has been just as edifying to hear her in the interview room after her matches as it has been to watch the matches themselves. After Gauff’s win today, Chris Evert told her, “You make me want to be a better person.” Sometimes, listening to her this summer, I’ve felt like I’ve been learning how to be a better person from her. Gauff is humble but not soft or self-pitying; politically aware and committed but not self-righteous; thoughtful and genuinely religious—she says “oh my goodness,” instead of “oh my God”—but also funny and quick to laugh. And she seems happy to answer any question she gets, as honestly as she can.
I hope when I wake up tomorrow, it’s still, like, real. Coco Gauff
Over the last month, Gauff has talked about her battles with imposter syndrome and self-esteem issues, and how she’s trying to “give myself credit more.” Doubting herself before her semifinal this week, she said, “I looked in the mirror, I was like, ‘No, you are a good player.’”
She talked about not being “pissed” at the climate-change protesters who delayed her semifinal.
“I always speak about preaching what you feel and what you believe in,” Gauff said. “It was done in a peaceful way, so I can’t get too mad about it.”
She talked about not regretting the fact that she hadn’t played this well in the past, and not thinking of her early losses as missed opportunities:
“I wouldn’t say 'missed opportunities,’ because tennis is learning,” she said. “Maybe those mistakes are the mistakes I needed to make to help me improve in the future.”
But she also found time to razz Frances Tiafoe about his sleeveless shirt at the Open, and compare it unfavorably to Carlos Alcaraz’s.
“You’re wearing confetti!” she told her countryman with a long laugh. “Carlos looks better.”
Gauff probably won’t start winning everything in sight right away. But she’s more than just an athlete to watch and marvel at. She’s also a person to relate to, and learn from. She’s a US Open champion who represents the country’s best.