NEW YORK – They grow up fast these days, and none faster than Coco Gauff.
In July, she was a shaky teenager possibly heading into tennis’ wilderness, struggling to answer questions about how someone who had once appeared so precocious, so destined for greatness, could still be waiting for her big moment.
In September, she is a US Open finalist, the star attraction of her home Grand Slam and the new face in America.
On a warm Thursday night at Arthur Ashe Stadium, Gauff, the 19-year-old prodigy, beat Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic 6-4, 7-5 to reach her first Flushing Meadows singles final.
She had been tested by Muchova’s all-court game and the strangest of atmospherics but, in the end, the night went her way in front of a crowd who exploded for her over and over along the way.
“Some of those points were so loud I don’t know if my ears are going to be OK,” she said in her on-court interview.
Gauff will face Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus in the final on Saturday. Sabalenka, who will become the world No. 1 when the new rankings come out next week, clinched her spot in a topsy-turvy, 0-6, 7-6 (7-1), 7-6 (10-5) slugfest against Madison Keys that stretched until nearly 1am.
Keys tried her best but could not get across the finish line to set up an all-American final, as Sabalenka’s error-strewn power game proved just good enough.
“Amazing player. She’s playing incredible tennis here, and the crowd will be supporting her a lot. But I’ll be fighting for every point,” Sabalenka said, looking ahead to the title-decider against Gauff.
Gauff was controlling the match at 6-4, 1-0 up when a climate protest early in the second set caused a nearly 50-minute delay. Police and security officials struggled to remove protesters, one of whom had used an adhesive to glue his feet to the concrete in an upper level of the stadium.
During the interruption, Gauff, seemingly relaxed, wandered over to a worker from the US Tennis Association and leaned over to see pictures of the protesters circulating on social media. She said later that she woke up on Thursday morning thinking that a climate protest might break out, as they had at the French Open in 2022 and Wimbledon this season.
Maybe that was a premonition. Maybe it was preparation by a player with a reputation for always doing her homework.
She earned her diploma on time in the spring of 2022 despite spending all her high school years on the pro tour. She and her family celebrated in Paris. Then she won six matches at the French Open before losing to world No. 1 Iga Swiatek in the final, on a day when she said the moment overwhelmed her.
The delay on Thursday took the early juice out of a capacity crowd of nearly 24,000 fans who arrived ready to celebrate a new American tennis queen a year after watching Serena Williams play her last match.
Over the past four years, Gauff has evolved into the most likely candidate to fill the void, breaking out at Wimbledon when she was 15 and making her French Open run last season.
Since then, though, her progress seemed to stall, especially on the big stages, until this US Open.
“I’m having way more fun than I was three years ago,” she said.
“I have been focusing more on myself and expectations of myself. I really believe that now I have the maturity and ability to do it. Regardless of what happens on Saturday, I’m proud of how I have been handling the last few weeks.”
Standing in her way is Sabalenka. The 25-year-old has also been in scintillating form these two weeks, but her struggles against Keys might be telling, even though she remains confident.
“I’m really proud of myself that I was able to turn around this game. I was just like, ‘Come on, keep trying, keep pushing, do something extra’,” the second seed said.
“I think this kind of thinking really helped me to stay in the game, to still have this belief that I have a chance to turn around this match.” NYTIMES, AFP
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