Bill Simons and Vinay Venkatesh
“And a child shall lead them.” Isaiah
Sometimes sports just works. As rough and tough as our lives sometimes get, there are occasional times when our games cut through it all and they give us some deep if fleeting moments of joy and redemption.
A teen with a racket did just that today. On tennis’ biggest stage, Coco Gauff roared back from a set down against a bigger, more powerful foe to give American tennis fans their greatest feel-good moment in recent memory.
Then again, we’ve long sensed that this wise child is a bit of a genius. She’s not only amazingly gifted as an athlete, she’s now poised to reach a kind of superstardom that Serena long occupied. Her fellow teen Mirra Andreeva said she has a beautiful face – and she has a beautiful soul, too. Her courage is astounding. Her poise amazes. Her calls for social justice impress. Chris Evert said, “Coco, you make me a better person.” And Gauff makes tennis a better sport.
After her stunning, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2 win over Aryna Sabalenka, Coco’s dad Corey told Inside Tennis, “What I like most about her is her fighting spirit. She never gives up.”
Pam Shriver said, “It seems like she’s been around forever.” It’s easy to forget she’s just 19.
Coco’s often so playful. Then again, she seems like an old soul. She navigates the Darwinian world of tennis with ease. In part, it’s because of her heritage: her grandmother was on the front line of the civil rights movement. Her parents were both skilled collegiate athletes. Her younger brothers keep it real for her. Then again, her journey to the top has been unreal.
When she was just eight she came to Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day at the Open and began to imagine. She won the French Open juniors title. Then at 15 she scored the most stunning upset of our era when she shocked Venus at Wimbledon. She reached the 2022 French Open finals and became No. 1 in doubles.
Still, there were many teary nights – her doubts were deep. After losing the French Open she said, “I thought my life was going to end.” She bristles at the army of doubters who said she’d never win, that it was all hype.
And this year, after she suffered a devastating defeat to lowly ranked Sofia Kenin in the first round at Wimbledon, her dad told her to bring in new voices. Brad Gilbert and Pere Riba became her coaches – and, poof! She soared.
In Washington, DC, Coco won her first title on US soil. She beat her nemesis, Iga Swiatek, for the first time, en route to the Cincinnati title. In New York she swept past a German veteran, a Russian phenom, a Danish mother, an ex-French Open winner and this year’s French finalist to reach the Open final. Since Wimbledon, her record was 17-1. Clearly Coco’s summer of love was in full flight – kumbaya.
But Aryna Sabalenka hadn’t read the Hollywood script. She had other ideas. The Belarusian, who over the past couple of years had overcome a debilitating battle with the yips on her serve, won the Australian Open and somehow navigated through a quagmire of political hostility, since she was the face of a government that was brutally attacking Ukraine. More to the point, in the US Open semis, she came from the brink of disaster against Madison Keys.
In today’s final, Aryna quickly imposed her considerable will. The older, bigger, more experienced, more powerful player took the racket out of Coco’s hands; a fearsome heavyweight was pummeling a fleet middleweight.
Sabalenka broke from the outset to go up 2-0. She unleashed a torrent of blasts to the lines that left Coco reaching, lunging and scrambling. Gauff tried to use her anticipation, speed, athleticism and guile to absorb the onslaught. But Aryna took the first set 6-2.
By all appearances, Gauff’s summer of love was crashing. She would once again fall in a Slam final.
Then again, Coco had already twice come back from a set down to win at the Open. Off-court, she told herself she could do this for herself and all the A-list celebs who were on hand.
She turned on a switch and stepped up her intensity, hit more deeply on her forehand and played with greater aggression. She adjusted to Aryna’s power, saved two break points and hit a key running crosscourt backhand winner that ignited the crowd. The momentum shifted.
Sabalenka conceded that as Coco got faster, she herself made too many errors and began to overthink. “The match was more about me…It’s me against me. The bad news is that I’m still having these issues playing against myself…I got her believing she can win this match. I got over-emotional.”
Early in the second set, Gauff crafted a superb early break as the Belarusian donated one of her infamous double faults. Gauff’s single break was enough to launch her to a 6-3 second set win to even the match.
Broadcaster Cliff Drysdale noted, “If Coco keeps on playing like this, there’s no solution…Have you ever seen a turnaround of this magnitude?”
Prevailing in marathon rallies and showing variation and resilience, Gauff marched on. As a cadre of great US Open champions – Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Tracy Austin, Monica Seles, Andy Roddick, Stan Smith and Maria Sharapova – looked on, Gauff hit a last backhand winner to the open court to score a 2-6, 6-3, 6-2 win that gave tennis a moving moment like few others.
Coco, the first teen to win the Open since Serena in 1999, cried. She will become No. 3 in the world and with Jessicap Pegula, No. 1 in doubles. Aryna, who will become No. 1 on Monday, wept.
“Oh my goodness,” gushed Coco. “It means so much to me. I feel like I’m a little bit in shock.” The ninth new women’s US Open champ in ten years thanked her father and family. She said she wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Serena and Venus.
She added, “Thank you to the people who didn’t believe in me…Those who thought they were putting water on my fire were actually adding gas – and I’m really burning so bright right now.”
Coco admitted the experience was crazy and suggested she is ready for all the hype machine that will descend on her. When asked what she’d say to the young Coco who first stepped out on a court, she replied, “That little girl had the dream, but I don’t know if she fully believed it…Honestly, I felt I lost a little bit of the dream as this journey has gone. I would tell that girl, ‘Don’t lose the dream. Keep having fun.’”
When Inside Tennis asked Gauff to summarize her magical run to the title she answered, “Dreams come true,” and “This is crazy. I still have no words…There is a song lyric that I want to use for my Instagram caption. It goes, “Concrete jungle, where dreams are made of…New York City is the city where dreams are made.”
AMERICA WATCH: San Diego wild card Katherine Hui cruised to the Junior Girls’ Singles title, beating No. 9 Tereza Valentova of the Czech Republic, 6-4, 6-4. The Stanford-bound 18-year-old didn’t drop a set over six wins. Irvine’s Learner Tien, No. 11, fell in the Boys’ Singles final in three sets to No. 7 Joao Fonseca of Brazil.