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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Beating Sabalenka, Gauff grabs the title, and the mantle of her sport

Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus and Coco Gauff of the U.S. pose at net before their U.S. Open women’s singles final, at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023.

By Matthew Futterman

With a stirring, three-set, back-from-the-dead win that sent the world’s biggest tennis stadium into a state of delirium, Coco Gauff, the 19-year-old prodigy who seemed destined for this since her early teens, captured her first Grand Slam title, winning the U.S. Open singles final 2-6, 6-3, 6-2 over Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus.

In front of a star-studded Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd that included the likes of Kevin Durant, Nicole Kidman and Charlize Theron, Gauff began the afternoon tight and shaky and was bullied around the court.

Down a set and fighting just to stay in games, Gauff’s signature fist-pumps and shouts of “Come on!” harkened to Serena Williams, her legendary predecessor as the queen of Flushing Meadows. She started chasing and lunging toward ball after ball, rattling Sabalenka into error after error. Each highlight charged up the crowd, sending more noise bouncing off the walls and the roof, helping to wither Sabalenka’s spirit.

“It doesn’t get more dramatic than that,” Gauff said.

Sabalenka will become the new world No. 1 Monday, a mark of her prowess all year that included the Australian Open title. But this — and Gauff — were too much.

“I gave them energy, and she started to be better,” Sabalenka said. As soon as it was over, waves of congratulatory messages streamed forth, from two former presidents, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, along with many others.

As good as she had played throughout the two-week tournament in the New York borough of Queens, Gauff said she didn’t start to envision winning the title until Friday night. And she wanted that thought out of her head. She called her boyfriend and they talked until 1 a.m., when it was time to go to sleep. There was a big day ahead.

Gauff’s victory, which came with a $3 million payday, was a coronation of sorts for the new face of the sport in America.

Her father had brought her to the U.S. Open as a young girl. She sat in the stands watching the Williams sisters pave the way for the next generation of Black American players.

“They’re the reason why I have this trophy today,” she said Saturday night.

Since she first broke through with a victory over Venus Williams on Centre Court at Wimbledon in 2019, Gauff’s rise to the elite level of the sport was more a question of when rather than if. That ascent took on a new urgency when Serena Williams, widely considered the greatest player of the modern era, said she would step away from tennis after her final match at this tournament last year.

In the third set on Saturday, Gauff teetered briefly, losing her serve with a 4-1 lead to give Sabalenka hope for a stirring comeback of her own. But in the next game, Gauff went ball-chasing once more, and got to within a game of the championship with her looping forehand and stinging put-away. The combination has become the signature of her play during this last transformative month of her career, which culminated Saturday with her as a new A-lister of sports and culture.

When the end came with a last backhand that whipped past Sabalenka down the sideline, Gauff collapsed on her back. Within seconds she was sobbing, and she cried through a congratulatory hug from Sabalenka, across the court, and through the stands as she climbed up to her box to embrace her parents in a smothering three-way hug.

She said it was the first time she saw her father, Corey, cry. Coco’s given name is Cori, but she quickly asserted the use of the name Coco when she turned pro, with T-shirts that said “Call Me Coco.” After her win on Saturday, she wore a similar shirt but with the word “Coco” crossed out, replaced with the word “Champion.”

Everyone in her box — her coaches Pere Riba and Brad Gilbert, her trainer and agent, friends and relatives — got teary hugs. She returned to the court for a few moments of prayer, then to check out what was happening on her phone. She tried to FaceTime her brother as she waited for the trophy ceremony. He didn’t pick up. They quickly connected by phone, she told reporters later.

“I’m a little bit in shock,” she said on the court at the trophy ceremony. “I’m so blessed in this life. I am so thankful for this moment. I don’t have any words for it.”

“You deserve this title,” Sabalenka said to Gauff before shedding a different kind of tears.

As Gauff rose through the tennis ranks, she also became increasingly outspoken on civil rights issues. She has long spoken about the impact of her grandmother, Yvonne Lee Odom, who in 1961 was selected to be among the first women to integrate her high school in Palm Beach County, a risky endeavor at a time when the children tasked with that kind of trailblazing were often met with taunts and threats of violence.

Nearly 50 years later, when she was 16, Gauff took the microphone at a Black Lives Matter protest in her hometown following the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

“I’m fighting for the future of my brothers,” she said. “I’m fighting for the future of my future kids. I’m fighting for the future of my future grandchildren. So, we must change now.”

Friday night, after a climate change protest interrupted her semifinal win over Karolina Muchova, Gauff didn’t gripe but rather spoke about her belief in the cause and the rights of people everywhere to protest peacefully for the change they believe in.

Sports journeys don’t always follow the narratives that fans hope they might. During the last two seasons, Gauff, whose greatest tennis tool among her many very good ones is her legs, had to work through struggles with her second serve and a shaky forehand that opponents at the highest level always seemed able to exploit. She lost decisively in the French Open final last year to Iga Swiatek, and since had grown frustrated by her inability to advance beyond the quarterfinals in the biggest tournaments and with the mounting questions about whether she would ever live up to her hype.

In June, though, she began working with a new coaching crew, led by Riba. She thought her play was improving. Then she lost a tough first-round match at Wimbledon to Sofia Kenin, a feisty American who won the 2020 Australian Open.

Some dark days followed. She saw the talk on social media.

“I just felt like people were, like, ‘Oh, she’s hit her peak and she’s done. It was all hype.’”

In late July, Gilbert, the longtime ESPN commentator who long ago helped guide two other Americans, Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick, to the U.S. Open singles title, joined her coaching ranks. Gauff began to figure out how to take advantage of her strengths and cover up her weaknesses.

She stopped trying to blast every high-powered shot to her forehand back across the court even harder. Instead, she started looping shots deep into her opponent’s court until they either missed or gave her a chance to use the power she had been honing since she was a little girl bashing balls on public courts in South Florida.

On Saturday, Sabalenka arrived ready for that. Early on, as Gauff’s shots struggled to find the depth they needed and her serve faltered, Sabalenka jumped on the short balls, forcing Gauff to find another formula.

Her solution, and a little more pace, began to emerge an hour later, along with those fist pumps and shouts and a crowd desperate to celebrate her, and help her drown out any naysayers who had questioned whether this comeback or this day would come.

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Nick Chernick
Nick Chernick

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