Coco Gauff cements status as future of American tennis with US Open triumph

The 19-year-old has lived under a fierce spotlight since bursting on to the scene four years ago - now as a Grand Slam champion she has made the ultimate breakthrough from contender to elite star

Coco Gauff kisses the US Open trophy after defeating Aryna Sabalenka in the final. AFP
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If pressure makes diamonds then Coco Gauff sparkled under the bright lights on Saturday night.

On the grandest stage in American tennis – both literally and figuratively – and in front of a fervent crowd of almost 24,000 willing on her every shot, Gauff's second attempt at a maiden Grand Slam title looked to be going much the same way as the first.

Fifteen months ago, an 18-year-old Gauff was dismissively swept aside by Iga Swiatek in the French Open title match, managing to win just four games; so when she found herself 2-6 down to the fearsome Aryna Sabalenka in the US Open final on Saturday, history appeared to be repeating itself.

But Gauff is not your average teenage talent; instead of buckling inside the Arthur Ashe Stadium cauldron, she soared, wresting control of the match to the point that it was Sabalenka, the WTA Tour's new top-ranked player from Monday, who wilted.

Two hours and six minutes after the first ball was served, Gauff was crowned US Open champion with a 2-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory, sealing her breakthrough triumph in style with a passing backhand winner.

"I am so happy I could make this country proud," Gauff said as chants of "USA, USA" rang out behind her.

"That little girl, she had the dream, but I don't know if she fully believed it," she added. "As a kid, you have so many dreams. As you get older sometimes it can fiddle away. I would tell her don't lose that dream."

Getting "older" is certainly relative here. Gauff is still only 19 and is very much the modern-day teenager. She even admitted to being "star struck" when she noticed Justin Bieber in the crowd for her third-round match last week.

Yet, she approaches tennis, and indeed life, with a level of maturity and composure beyond many more experienced athletes. Perhaps that's because Gauff was forced to adjust to the spotlight from the age of 15; when most youngsters that point still don't know what they want to be when they grow up, Gauff was busy eliminating Venus Williams at Wimbledon.

Her rise to the very top has not been all smooth sailing – it very rarely is – but each setback, each dip in form, has been dissected and evaluated, the lessons learnt and incorporated. Gauff's defeat in Paris last summer is a case in point.

“I watched Iga lift up that trophy, and I watched her the whole time," said Gauff, who will rise to a career-high world No 3 on Monday. "I said, ‘I’m not going to take my eyes off her, because I want to feel what that felt like for her’.”

Another down moment came this July at Wimbledon, where she exited in the first round. Since then, the American has won 18 of 19 matches, and now 12 in a row, while working with a new coaching pair of Brad Gilbert and Pere Riba.

For a player who has had to manage hype and expectation from before she was legally allowed to drive, that pressure is set to crank up to an entirely new level. The US is a tennis nation accustomed to dominant champions – from Billie Jean King and Chris Evert to Jimmy Connors, Pete Sampras, and, of course, Serena Williams.

The comparisons with Williams, in particular, were immediate and inevitable, and now Gauff is part of the Grand Slam club, she has become the undisputed leader of a new era for American tennis.

How she handles it all could ultimately determine the level of success she is able to achieve for the rest of her career. But given the way Gauff has navigated her way to the top, turning tribulations into triumphs and setbacks into success, there should be many more nights like Saturday.

Sabalenka perhaps put it best when she said: "Many more [titles] to come, I'm sure."

Updated: September 10, 2023, 11:59 AM