NEW YORK — She was just 19, yet the doubts had already crept into Coco Gauff’s young head that she had plateaued or might not quite have what it takes, b
ecause it was her fate to come of age in a microwave era in which tennis champions are expected to pop like popcorn out of the bag, ready-made when zapped with a little heat. All this time she was taking to develop - when it wasn’t that long, really; it’s just that the rest of the world is in such great haste that four years felt like 40. Among the many things Gauff did with that magnificent backhand that won the U.S. Open on Saturday - a blast of self-certainty that said, “All right, here I am” - was to restore a decent sense of time.
All along, she was right on schedule. Which became clear with that final stroke, an all-out, dead certain wallop up the line that left the No. 1 player in the world, Aryna Sabalenka, vainly lunging and completed a 2-6, 6-3, 6-2 comeback victory that was as much about poise and vanquishing pressure as the opponent. She is the youngest American to win a U.S. Open since Serena Williams at the age of 17 in 1999.
“Honestly, thank you to the people who didn’t believe in me,” Gauff said during the trophy ceremony. “. . . I tried my best to carry this with grace, and I’ve been doing my best. . . . Those who thought [you] were putting water on my fire, you were really adding gas to it, and now I’m really burning so bright.”
Gauff was identified as a potential future champion at the age of 15, and she hauled expectations around like a sack of rocks throughout her adolescence and deep into this season, which included a first-round loss at Wimbledon in July that only increased the burden. The exact weight of which became clear when she dropped to the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium, flat on her back with such palpable, utter relief. She got to her feet, only to bend double with sobs and then knelt, her shoulders heaving and her forehead leaning on the end of her racket.
The match was not a classic - it will be memorable only for the minting of a young woman who promises to be a massively popular champion - but the win was more than credible. Sabalenka, 25, was the world’s most dominant player this year, a 6-footer with a cleaver of a forehand delivered with unnerving shrieks who reached at least the semifinals in all four Grand Slam tournaments and won the Australian Open. In March, she had dispatched Gauff in straight sets.
Throughout the first set, she seemed larger than Gauff in every way - larger in command, in force, in voice and in confidence. Sabalenka was utterly unafraid to swing away, even though it meant spraying errors, and made up for them with sheer assertiveness. “A tough power player,” Gauff said of her. “She always kept me on the back foot.”
Assertiveness was one thing that Gauff had struggled to acquire as she coped with her prodigy-dom. Her other assets were all there, clear to see in the breadth of her game: terrific dodging footwork, whipping strokes, chiseled fitness. What she lacked was a firm sense of self-worth.
“I felt like people were like, ‘It was all hype,’ " she said.
In no uncertain terms, then, this final was a rite of passage for Gauff. In her lone previous grand slam final at the 2022 French Open - shortly after earning her high school diploma - she was swept off the court by then-No. 1 Iga Swiatek, 6-1, 6-3, and admitted she wasn’t ready for the occasion. “The whole tournament felt like a surprise to me. . . . I was really just relieved that I made it to a final because so many people expected a lot of things from me. I just didn’t really believe that I had it in me,” she reflected earlier this week.
Just two months ago, she was beaten in the first round of Wimbledon by Sofia Kenin, plagued by error-proneness on her idiosyncratic extreme-grip forehand. But if the defeat was a crisis, it also forced a catharsis. Gauff confronted the fact that she had been overgrinding, allowing pressure to cloud her perspective. She would over-dwell on losses and let them affect her for weeks, she said. When she brought in renowned coach Brad Gilbert as a consultant after Wimbledon, the first thing he advised her when they met to discuss working together was, “You need to smile more.”
“I’m just, like, I mean, I have a lucky life, and so I should enjoy it,” she observed. “I know there are millions of people who probably want to be in this position that I am now, so instead of saying why this, why that, I should just be, like, why not me? Why am I not enjoying this? I should.”
She won three titles this season - and yet even then, she still struggled with feeling inadequate. Even after tournament victories, she would catch her inner voice saying, “Well I beat some good people, but maybe I caught them on off days.” If there was a major shift in Gauff in the last two months, it was mental, not physical, a result of the fact that she finally quelled her nagging self-doubt.
“It’s still definitely a part of me, but I do think I’m giving myself more credit more and speaking things into existence is real,” she said. “I’ve been trying to speak more positively of myself and actually telling myself that I’m a great player.”
The turning point of the match came early in the second set, on Sabalenka’s serve with Gauff leading 2-1. Sabalenka struck a cocksure touch volley - and Gauff made a racing retrieval and rolled a backhand angled pass that ticked off the line. The clean winner brought the audience of 24,000 roaring to their feet in a prolonged ovation. There was something in the shot that seemed to elevate Gauff - she went on to break serve and she never retreated from that level. “After that, I knew I was coming home with this,” she said later.
It was the first victory that will make all the others so much easier now. Insecurities have been put to rest, “trials and tribulations” have been passed through, as she put it, and in front of her looks like a clear future full of opportunities. “Many more to come, I’m pretty sure,” Sabalenka said. So is Gauff.
Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. She began her second stint at The Washington Post in 2000 after spending the previous decade working as a book author and as a magazine writer.