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In a tenacious tug of war, Coco Gauff brings Armstrong house down
The 15-year-old American wild card prevailed over Timea Babos in an electrifying night-session battle on Thursday.
Published Aug 30, 2019
NEW YORK—It must be hard to play Coco Gauff these days. On Thursday night, her opponent, Timea Babos, broke Gauff in the first game of their second-round match in Louis Armstrong Stadium. But rather than pump her fist or act enthused, Babos began complaining to the chair umpire that there was something wrong with the scoreboard. Is it any surprise that she was broken back immediately, and 30 minutes later had lost the first set 6-2?
Babos was fighting a 15-year-old and 14,000 of her loudest supporters—imagine going to a rock show and trying to drown out the band all by yourself, and you probably have a pretty good idea what she was up against. But the 26-year-old Hungarian, who hits a heavy ball and is always ready for a scrap, held up well, considering. She calmed down, stopped worrying about the scoreboard, and started trading bullets, and scrambling all over the court, with Gauff. By the start of the third set, the match, lifted by the energy of the crowd, had taken flight and turned into something special.
It felt like a long tug of war, with neither woman willing to let the rope move an inch. They saved break points with big serves (between them they hit 17 aces). They sprinted all the way across the court and still managed to thread passing shots for winners on the dead run. They hit ran each other up and back and side to side, hit drop shots and volleys and lobs, chip forehands, fierce backhands, and angled passes. They earned break points and saved them. By the end, they seemed to be in a contest to see who could shriek the loudest. Granted, you had to be pretty loud to be heard over the fans.
The peak came during a series of long games and exhausting points at the start of the third set. At 1-2, Gauff ended up on all fours while digging out a drop shot, then got up and tried in vain to hit a left-handed volley with her next shot. A few points later, she finished another point laid out flat on the court. But while Babos was resilient, Gauff was, once again, astute.
After missing a few go-for-broke forehands early in the third, Gauff began to mix it up. On some points, she pulled back, lofted her forehands high and deep, and then pounced on the weak replies from Babos. On other points, she hit deft little crosscourt drop shots; they weren’t risky, but Babos wasn’t ready for them. When she was rushed, Gauff didn’t try to rush back. Instead, she was content to block a slice forehand back and wait; it usually won her the point. And even after squandering two break points at 4-3 in the third, she stepped up to the line at 4-4 and threw down a love hold.
Finally, in the last game, luck came to Gauff’s rescue, and fortune decided that her run should continue for another round. At 30-30, she framed a volley that plopped over the net for a winner—all Babos could do was stand and stare at the injustice. On match point, Gauff hit another ball off the frame, this time on her return, that landed in, before Babos missed a backhand.
Gauff may be young, but she’s wise enough to know that this one could have gone either way.
“We were both just testing each other,” she said. “If I didn’t win that last point, maybe she would have won the match.”
“I was just running a lot,” was her (modest) assessment of how she pulled it out.
In recent days, a few articles have begun to question whether Gauff is “overhyped.” It doesn’t seem like a question worth asking right now, because it could take 10 years or more to find out the answer. Jennifer Capriati was overhyped—until she started winning Slams a decade later. For now, better to enjoy Gauff’s run for what it is, a crack of late-summer lightning, fast and sudden and electrifying. It’s not the first to hit the US Open. From Chris Evert to Tracy Austin to Venus Williams to Melanie Oudin to Cici Bellis, New York loves to go wild over a teen tennis sensation. As that list attests, some go on to have Hall of Fame careers, others don’t.
Right around the time that Gauff ended up on her hands and knees digging out a shot, and the crowd’s collective scream threatened to blow the roof off of Armstrong, I started laughing. This was fun—nothing more, nothing less. Leave Gauff’s future alone; all we know now is that she’s lit up Wimbledon and the US Open, and that’s more than enough for a 15-year-old.
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