It was early in the second set when a crestfallen Coco Gauff looked at her box and said, “I’m trying”. The 19-year-old had just missed another forehand. She was competing in her second Grand Slam final, inside a packed Arthur Ashe Stadium that was rooting passionately for the home favourite, but the weakest aspect of her game had been exploited thoroughly by her opponent up until that point.
At that moment, Gauff would have probably been reminded of her first appearance in a Major final, at the 2022 French Open, where Iga Swiatek crushed her in straight sets. She had been a prodigy, expected to work her way towards greatness. But pressure can break even the best. Did she have it in her to own the biggest stage?
About an hour after she uttered those words in desperation, Gauff had provided all the answers. In what was a remarkable comeback, the young American won 11 of the last 15 games to beat second seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus 2-6, 6-3, 6-2 and emerge the 2023 US Open women’s champion.
“Thank you for the people who didn’t believe in me,” Gauff said at the presentation. “To those who thought they were putting water on my fire, they were adding gas to it. Now I’m burning so bright right now.”
Gauff is now the youngest American to win the US Open since Serena Williams triumphed as a 17-year-old in 1999. She also became just the 10th teenager to bag the women’s singles title at Flushing Meadows.
Her latest victory capped an extraordinary month and a half for Gauff. She won the Washington Open in the first week of August, which was the first WTA 500 singles title of her career. She followed that up by winning in Cincinnati, which was her first WTA 1000 title. And now, she has a Grand Slam title to her name as well.
Gauff’s win in New York was her 18th in 19 matches, and arguably her toughest of the lot. Her forehand has been a work in progress and she has had to alter her technique to gain consistency with it. But on Saturday, Sabalenka showed little mercy in the first set and attacked it almost entirely to earn three service breaks.
It was always going to be a battle between Sabalenka’s belligerent offence and Gauff’s incredible defence. In the end, it came down to who could harness their respective strength in the most effective way. And despite being blown away in the opener, it was Gauff who managed to not wilt under the pressure and find a way.
Before the start of the match, Gauff was asked about the challenge of dealing with her Belarusian opponent’s raw power. She said she was confident of handling it and could also unleash her own power in return. That’s exactly what she went on to do.
Sabalenka hit eight winners and 14 unforced errors in the first set but her game unravelled in the second. She didn’t attack Gauff’s forehand as much, probably because of her own struggles from the baseline, and ended up missing shots from all over the court. Gauff, meanwhile, cut down on her errors and kept hustling till she found her rhythm. She hadn’t managed to dictate play in the opener but her resilience allowed her to stay afloat and eventually turn the tables on the Australian Open champion.
“In the first set I was dealing with my emotions quite good,” said Sabalenka, who will take over as world No.1 for the first time in her career.
“I was focused on myself, not on the crowd or the way Gauff moves. Then the second set I started probably overthinking, and because of that I started kind of losing my power. Sometimes I can get emotional. Today on the court, I was overthinking and I was missing quite, like, not easy balls, but the balls I shouldn’t be missing. The unforced errors were a lot in the second set, and that’s where I get her to believe that she can win this match. I got overemotional after the second set.”
Despite her opponent’s struggles, though, Gauff deserved all the credit for staying strong and closing out the biggest victory of her young career. She had been battling expectations since breaking into the elite level. After turning pro when she was 14, she became the youngest player in history to qualify for the Wimbledon main draw the next year. She kept producing results as her body and game kept maturing as well.
“I lost when I was 17 and there was a stat, they were like, ‘Oh, she’s not going to win a slam before Serena’s age’,” said Gauff. “It was stuff like that that I felt like I had a time limit on when I should win one, and if I won one after a certain age it wouldn’t be an achievement. I’s just crazy the amount of things that I have heard or seen about myself, but I’m really happy how I’ve been able to manage it all.”
It was a night that saw a number of dreams come true. Of Billie Jean King, who led and won the fight for equal pay 50 years ago and was on stage when Gauff was presented the $3 million winner’s cheque, the same as the men’s winner. Of parents who sacrificed their all to see their daughter become a champion and were shedding tears of joy. Of a youngster who danced in the stands of the Arthur Ashe Stadium as an eight-year-old etching her name in the history books 11 years on.
It was indeed a night that saw Coco Gauff burn the brightest.