Coco Gauff wins the US Open and takes her first Grand Slam title

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NEW YORK – This is what so many people expected Coco Gauff to do one day. It didn’t matter how young she was. It didn’t matter if there were setbacks along the way. Those inflated expectations didn’t make the task of becoming a Grand Slam champion as a teenager any easier – especially when that chorus was accompanied by voices of others who doubted her.

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However, she made it. At the age of 19. At the US Open, where she went as a child with her parents to watch her idols Serena and Venus Williams compete.

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Gauff bounced off a mediocre start to storm to her first major championship by defeating Aryna Sabalenka 2-6, 6-3, 6-2 in Saturday’s US Open final, to the delight of a raucous crowd from start to finish.

When it was over, as she shed tears of joy as she also hugged mom and dad as they cried, Gauff first thanked them, her grandparents and her brothers, one of whom didn’t return a FaceTime call from her right after the game . And then Gauff took the microphone during the ceremony to address everyone who had wondered if this day would come.

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“Thank you to the people who didn’t believe in me. Like a month ago I won a (tour) title and people said I was quitting. Two weeks ago I won a (tour) title and people said it was the biggest one ever. “Three weeks later I’m here with this trophy,” said Gauff, who has the best winning streak of his career with twelve games. “I’ve done my best to wear this with grace and I’ve done my best to be totally honest with those who thought they were pouring water on my fire: They really put gas in it, and now it really burns so bright .”

Gauff, who hails from Florida, is the first American teenager to win the country’s major tennis tournament since Serena Williams in 1999. If last year’s US Open was all about saying goodbye to Williams when she competed for the last time, this two weeks from now in New York became a “Welcome to the big time!” moment for Gauff.

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She burst onto the scene at age 15 by becoming the youngest qualifier in Wimbledon history, making it to the fourth round in her 2019 Grand Slam debut. She reached her first major final at the French Open last year, finishing second. What appeared to be a step backwards came at the All England Club this July, where she was knocked out in the first round.

Since then, she has won 18 of 19 competitions while working with a new coaching pair, Brad Gilbert and Pere Riba.

The No. 6 seed Gauff did it on Saturday by withstanding the power Sabalenka displayed with almost every swing of her racket, eventually getting used to it and managing to bounce back shot for shot. Gauff broke out at one such point early in the third set, chasing every ball that came her way until she finally delivered a volley that she punctuated with a fist pump and a shout of “Come on!”

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Soon it was 4-0 for Gauff in this set. With the score at 4-1, Sabalenka took a medical break while her left leg was massaged. Gauff stayed fit during the break – which lasted a few minutes, not the 50 during a climate protest in the semifinals – by practicing some serves.

As they continued, Sabalenka managed a break to go 4-2. But Gauff stopped right back and was about to play out the win before falling on her back on the field. She soon climbed into the stands to find her parents.

“You managed!” Gauff’s mother told her, both in tears.

Sabalenka entered 2023 with a 23-2 record in major tournaments, including her first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in January. The 25-year-old from Belarus has already been assured that he will rise from No. 2 to No. 1 in the WTA rankings for the first time next week.

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But the fans reduced her to the role of the opponent. As is often the case when an American plays in America, Gauff received by far the biggest support from the seats in the 23,000-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium. Their pregame TV interview, shown on the arena’s video screens, was drowned out by the applause and cheers that echoed from the closed, retractable roof.

Even in the early stages, Gauff celebrated winners as if the game were already over. Ditto for Sabalenka’s mistakes. Her errors and especially double errors – and there were six in total, three in her first two service games alone, plus another to give a break in the second set – and various other errors, including an over-the-shoulder backhand error. Volleyed into the net and what looked like a much easier forehand volley.

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By the end, Sabalenka had committed 46 unforced errors, well over double Gauff’s 19 overall.

Here’s another take: Gauff only needed to deliver 13 winners on Saturday to rack up 83 points.

When Sabalenka has everything timed just right, it’s difficult for any opponent to deal with – even someone as quick, smart and instinctive as Gauff, whose marking managed to reach every ball on the field and put them towards points hold that few other players would be able to extend.

Somehow Gauff started doing it again and again. And Sabalenka kept starting to miss, frequently hitting her thigh, mumbling or shaking her head afterwards.

They traded early breaks for 2-all before Sabalenka secured the next four games and secured that set. There was a suspenseful point during this segment that made the audience riot before it was over. Gauff struggled to get Sabalenka’s shots over the net again and again, somehow deflecting, among other things, a booming overhead shot on the run before a second, out-of-reach overhead shot bounced off the ground and into the stands.

Sabalenka raised her left hand and waved her fingers, urging people in the stands to show her some love.

But soon Gauff was playing better, Sabalenka was missing the mark more often and the love was going to just one of them, the sport’s newest Grand Slam champion.

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