With the permission of the legendary Billie Jean King, master of ceremonies of the U.S. Open, as it celebrates the 50th anniversary of equal pay championed by the founder of the WTA, all eyes in New York are on Coco Gauff. “This year’s U.S. Open belongs to Coco Gauff, win or lose,” was the headline in The New York Times, which is closely following the progress of the teenager, who burst onto the scene aged 15 at Wimbledon in 2019, knocking out the great Venus Williams in the opening round. Today, the 19-year-old American is no longer a mere prospect or a flash in the pan, but a reality. Sixth in the world rankings, she is now a consistent tournament player — she has five singles titles, the most recent in Cincinnati — and she also possesses a notable charisma.
“I want to be a person that people can identify with. If I win big things I’ll have a chance to have some impact; maybe not on everybody, but on some people. And that’s enough,” she said last year in an interview with EL PAÍS, in which she underlined her feminist commitment: “I am one thanks to my father, he raised us without gender roles.” After her explosion onto the WTA Tour, sponsors queued up and Roger Federer — a man with a good eye for tennis and for business — signed her up through his management agency TEAM8.
“In 2020, when the Black Lives Matter movement was at its hottest, I gave a kind of talk at my house and I thought it wouldn’t go any further, but suddenly I saw it on CNN, ESPN and everywhere...” she said during that interview in Madrid, aware of the media presence she has in a country desperately looking for new tennis references after the retirement of Serena Williams.
In reaching the semifinals, Gauff has become the youngest American player to progress to that point since Serena in 2001. “I try to think that I’m still at the beginning of the tournament, and so I’m emotionally fresher,” she told reporters. “To win you have to be very focused, but at the same time you have to enjoy yourself. Maybe that’s the change: now I have more fun and more self-confidence. In the first meeting I had with Brad [Gilbert, her coach along with Spaniard Pere Riba], he told me I had to smile more. The pressure is always there, but I think I’m learning to deal with it better and better.”
After an early exit at Wimbledon, Gauff spoke to Brad Gilbert in London, a reputed technical advisor for players such as Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick, and Andy Murray. Gilbert accepted her proposal and the results were immediate: titles in Washington and Cincinnati, the latter, a WTA 1000 event, the biggest of her career so far. “August has been a great month for me, but I know how this works; I’m up now, but at any moment the drop will come. I’m confident it won’t be now... Before, losing affected me too much, but now I know that we all lose, even the best players did,” she says before complimenting her new coach.
“BG [Gilbert] has coached some of the best ever. He’s very relaxed, he helps me see tennis in a different way. But maybe it’s not so much the message as the way he conveys it to you. It helps me to have fun and to accept the difficulties,” says Gauff, who faces French Open finalist Karolina Muchova in the semifinals after dispatching Laura Siegemund, Mirra Andreeva, Elise Mertens, Caroline Wozniacki and Jelena Ostapenko to reach the last four, losing only two games in the quarterfinal against the Latvian, who beat reigning champion Iga Swiatek in the previous round.
Gauff’s style of play is not particularly seductive but she is one of the toughest players on the circuit, almost 1.80m tall and possessing an extraordinary physique. “My tennis is improving and, in that sense, I feel that I am one of the best,” she said. “I admire Novak [Djokovic] and Carlos [Alcaraz] a lot. They are at another level in terms of physique and footwork, and that’s something I’m working on. I think I’m at a similar athletic level to them, although on my scale, obviously.”
“She’s had the tough burden the past few years of seeing other people winning Slams and thinking, ‘OK, why not me?’ but she’s willing to do the work to get there,” Gilbert told ESPN.
Gauff’s performances at Wimbledon aged 15 attracted a lot of attention and since then she has been followed with a magnifying glass. Experts agree that her rise to number one is only a matter of time, although Aryna Sabalenka – who will top the rankings next Monday - and Swiatek currently dominate the WTA Tour. In any case, she is keeping her feet on the ground. “I definitely do feel like I’m in a rebuilding period. I’m trying to hit the next gear of my game. I feel like I have the foundation in my game. Now it’s building around that, it’s building the house, I guess, essentially. I have the land and I need to build the house on top of it, make it as extravagant and big and pretty as possible,” Gauff said.
In the meantime, American tennis fans are dreaming of a homegrown U.S. Open winner, following in the footsteps of Sloane Stephens (2017), the most recent champion after Serena’s last triumph at Flushing Meadows in 2014. In the last two decades, only those two have lifted the trophy. Now, the American media believes, it is Gauff’s turn.
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