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Tennis phenomenon Coco Gauff wins the US Open at the age of 19

Coco Gauff put aside a mediocre start to rise to her first Grand Slam title at the age of 19. She bounced back on Saturday to beat Aryna Sabalenka 2-6, 6-3, 6-2 in the US Open final to the delight of a raucous crowd that was loud from start to finish.

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

This is the kind of triumph that has been expected – rightly or not – from Gauff since she burst onto the scene at the age of 15 by becoming the youngest qualifier in Wimbledon history and reaching the fourth round on her Grand Slam debut in 2019.

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Coco Gauff
Coco Gauff, of the United States, reacts during a match against Aryna Sabalenka, of Belarus, during the women’s singles final of the US Open tennis championships on September 9, 2023 in New York.

Charles Krupa/AP

She reached her first major final at the French Open last year, finishing second, and has now earned the biggest trophy of her young career. Gauff recorded a 12th consecutive win and 18th in her past 19 matches following a first-round exit at the All England Club in July.

The No. 6 seed Gauff did it Saturday by withstanding the power Sabalenka showed with almost every swing of her racket, eventually getting used to it and managing to get back shot after shot. Gauff broke to start the third set on just one such point, tracking down every ball that came her way until finally hitting a putaway volley that she punctuated with a fist pump and a shout of “Come on!”

It soon became 4-0 for Gauff in that set. At 4-1, Sabalenka took a medical timeout while her left leg was massaged. Gauff stayed sharp during the break — which lasted a handful of minutes, not the 50 during a climate protest in the semifinals — by practicing some serves.

When they resumed, Sabalenka broke to make it 4-2. But Gauff immediately broke back and quickly served out the win, before falling onto her back on the court. She soon climbed into the stands to find her parents and others for hugs.

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

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

But she was reduced to the role of foil by the fans. As often happens when an American plays in America, Gauff received by far the most support from the seats at the 23,000-capacity Arthur Ashe Stadium. Her pre-match TV interview, which was shown on the video screens in the arena, was drowned out by the sound of applause and cheers that echoed through the closed sunroof.

Even in the early stages, Gauff’s winners were celebrated as if the match was over. So did Sabalenka’s mistakes. Her errors and especially double faults – and there were six in total, three in her first two service games alone, plus another to hand a break in the second set – and several other errors, including one over-the- shoulder backhand volley into the net and what appeared to be a much simpler forehand volley.

By the end, Sabalenka had committed 46 unforced errors, far more than double Gauff’s total of 19.

Here’s another way to look at it: Gauff only had to deliver 13 winners on Saturday to rack up 83 points.

Sabalenka came out and did what she does, almost regardless of the setting, the surface or the stakes: shoot as hard as she can and punctuate them with loud exhales.

That doesn’t mean this is the only thing she can do. One particular point from the second set showed that, when Gauff hit a lob, Sabalenka chased with her back to the net and, spinning, responded with a lob of her own for a winner.

When Sabalenka has everything calibrated just right, it’s difficult for any enemy to deal with her power – even one as fast, smart and instinctive as Gauff, whose covering of every ball managed to keep her on points that few others players could extend his.

And if Sabalenka misses the target, she certainly misses. After abuse on Saturdays, she would often slap her thigh or look at her entourage while mumbling or shaking her head.

Neither player hit the right notes early on, perhaps due to their contrasting styles and the mix of Sabalenka’s excellent attacking against Gauff’s exemplary defence.

They traded early breaks to 2-all, but Sabalenka then took the next four games to take that set. During that piece there was a tense point where the audience made noise before it was over. Gauff tried to get Sabalenka’s shots back over the net, including somehow deflecting a booming overhead while running, before a second, unreachable overhead bounced off the ground and into the stands.

Sabalenka raised her left hand, wagged her fingers and told the people in the stands to give her some love.

But soon Gauff was playing better, Sabalenka was more off target and the love was showered only on one of them, the sport’s newest Grand Slam champion.

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