Saturday, September 9, 2023

From prodigy to major champion--Coco Gauff makes the journey in style

Today, 19-year-old Coco Gauff became the 2023 U.S. Open champion, defeating soon-to-be number 1 in the world Aryna Sabalenka 2-6, 6-3, 6-2. It was an exciting final, and featured an opening set in which Sabalenka--always a formidable opponent--looked as if she could do no wrong. The Belarusian star overpowered Gauff (which isn't that easy to do) and broke her three times.

The second set was a different story, which shouldn't have surprised anyone. Gauff saved a couple of break points to start the set, then broke her opponent. As the set progressed, Gauff's defensive skills became the perfect foil to the very power that had caused the 6th seed problems in the first set. She was relentless, and won the set to set up some real third set drama.

But the only thing truly dramatic about the final set--other than the ferocity of Gauff's sometimes-unstable forehand--was the degree to which Sabalenka continued to make errors. The ball just kept coming back to her, eventually forcing her to hit an error. In all, Sabalenka hit 19 winners, but made 46 unforced errors.

In her post-match speech, the new champion said the usual things--she thanked her family and her team, thanked the tournament staff, thanks the fans, and gave touching praise to her opponent. But---in the tradition of Italy's Sara Errani--she also thanked her detractors. It is sometimes hard to believe that so much poise and thoughtful speech is coming from a 19-year-old, but this isn't just any 19-year-old--it's Coco Gauff.

Not long before she competed in the U.S. Open, Gauff won the 500 tournament in Washington, DC, and the 100 event in Cincinnati, presumably making her the hottest prospect coming into the Open. But winning warmup tournaments often doesn't translate to winning an upcoming major. In Gauff's case, however, those victories were just a taste of what was to come. 

Aryna Sabalenka's consolation prize isn't a bad one--on Monday, she becomes the number 1 player in the world. Her new ranking was clinched when current world number 1 Iga Swiatek lost to Alona Ostapenko in the round of 16. Swiatek has held the number 1 ranking for 75 consecutive weeks, the longest that a first-time number 1 has ever held it.

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