NEW YORK (AP) — Ever since Coco Gauff announced her arrival with a remarkable Grand Slam debut at age 15, she’s been in the spotlight. Just about everyone in tennis recognized her talent, her smarts, her drive, her ability to step up on big stages.
Just about everyone, it seemed, was absolutely sure she belonged at the top of the game. Everyone, perhaps, except Gauff herself. Even as victories accumulated, including the two biggest titles of her career last month in the run-up to the U.S. Open, she would wonder whether she just happened to catch opponents on a bad day.
Look at her now. Even Gauff is starting to really believe. How could she not? The 19-year-old from Florida is one victory away from her first major championship — and Gauff will have 23,000 or so of her closest friends backing her in Arthur Ashe Stadium on Saturday when she meets Aryna Sabalenka, a 25-year-old from Belarus, in the final at Flushing Meadows.
“It’s still definitely a part of me, but I do think I’m giving myself more credit more,” Gauff said Thursday night after beating Karolina Muchova 6-4, 7-5 on her sixth match point in a semifinal interrupted for 50 minutes in the second set by protesters concerned about the role of fossil fuels in climate change. “And speaking things into existence is real. I’ve been trying to speak more positively of myself and actually telling myself that I’m a great player.”
She carries a career-best, 11-match unbeaten streak into Saturday. It will be the second Slam singles final for both No. 6 seed Gauff and No. 2 seed Sabalenka, who eliminated Madison Keys of the United States 0-6, 7-6 (1), 7-6 (10-5) in the other semifinal.
There is no doubt which player will hear more partisan support in Ashe. The loud crowds have been backing Gauff all tournament — their harsh treatment made first-round opponent Laura Siegemund of Germany cry afterward — and Sabalenka spoke after defeating Keys about how taking on an American in America isn’t easy.
“I’m still hoping that probably some of them will be supporting me. Will be just a little bit,” Sabalenka said with a laugh. “Just sometimes, please. Please!”
Gauff was the runner-up to Iga Swiatek at the 2022 French Open. Sabalenka won the Australian Open in January; she is 23-2 in major tournaments this season and will replace Swiatek at No. 1 in the WTA rankings on Monday, regardless of what happens on Saturday.
Having the experience of playing for the title at Melbourne Park “is going to help me,” Sabalenka said, “because I know which kind of emotions to expect. I know how to handle them.”
Gauff said her run to the final in Paris last year “felt like a surprise to me.”
“I just think then I was … relieved that I made it to a final, because so many people expected a lot of things from me. I think I just didn’t really believe that I had it in me, especially at the time, playing Iga, who was on a winning streak and everything,” Gauff said. “But this time around, I have been focusing more on myself and my expectations of myself. Not going on social media or listening to people who believe that I can or believe that I can’t.”
Four years ago, she became the youngest qualifier in Wimbledon history and beat seven-time major champion Venus Williams en route to the fourth round there.
And so began the hype. More impressive results would follow. Attention grew.
But the All England Club also was the site of a real disappointment this July: Gauff exited in the first round with a loss to 2020 Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin.
In the immediate aftermath, Gauff didn’t leave her hotel room for two days, ordering in meals and stewing over the setback. Her thoughts already shifted to the upcoming offseason and 2024. Yes, hard as it might be to fathom right now, she was pretty much ready to write off the hard-court segment of the calendar, including the U.S. Open.
So much for that.
Gauff has won 17 of her 18 matches since then. Her game is still growing, of course. Her self-confidence, too.
“Yes, the final is an incredible achievement,” she said Thursday night, “but it’s something that I’m not satisfied with yet.”
Howard Fendrich has been the AP’s tennis writer since 2002.
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