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Coco Gauff reaches new heights at the U.S. Open, where the semifinals await


NEW YORK — She has won in humidity in Washington and, well, more humidity in suburban Cincinnati. She has won three-set fights against veterans at night and in front of restive crowds in the early afternoon. She has won 16 of her past 17 matches now, following a first-round upset loss at Wimbledon, and stifling 90-degree weather wasn’t going to stall her streak.

She is from Florida by way of Atlanta, after all. Coco Gauff thrives in the heat.

Things are about to get just a touch hotter for the 19-year-old. The No. 6 seed has been the center of attention at this U.S. Open in women’s singles, and she ascended to might-actually-win-this-thing territory Tuesday. High temperatures didn’t bother her while she played at noon at Arthur Ashe Stadium, and neither did Jelena Ostapenko, the 2017 French Open champion from Latvia whom Gauff ousted, 6-0, 6-2, in 1 hour 8 minutes in the quarterfinals.

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With the win, Gauff became the first American teenager to advance to the U.S. Open semifinals since 2001. Serena Williams lost to her sister Venus in the final that year, but she did get the chance to make up for it with some success later on.

“This is my shortest match of the tournament by far, so, yeah, maybe I’ll go back out and hit the courts,” Gauff said afterward, seriously.

After a potential practice — and with a quarterfinal doubles match on her schedule Wednesday alongside partner Jessica Pegula — Gauff will face No. 10 seed Karolina Muchova in the semifinals Thursday night. She won her lone match against Muchova, 27, last month in the Cincinnati final to collect her fifth career title. Muchova handled No. 30 seed Sorana Cirstea, 6-0, 6-3, in prime time Tuesday.

Ostapenko handed Gauff a loss at the Australian Open this year but didn’t look nearly as comfortable in Tuesday’s conditions. She said she was dragging after upsetting world No. 1 Iga Swiatek in a late-night match Sunday, after which she didn’t get to bed until 5 a.m. Monday. She said she had low energy all day and found it difficult to concentrate on shots she would normally put away.

“Honestly, I was expecting a little bit more from [Gauff] today,” said Ostapenko, who won seven points in the 21-minute first set. “I felt like she had a little bit, like, a lot of pressure because obviously to play at home is not easy, as I experienced before myself. But, yeah, I think she maybe changed a little bit the tactics [from January]. She’s a great player. She’s still very young.”

Gauff had no such issues with her focus. She was in control from the start and cruised with just two unforced errors in the first set. Ostapenko is right that Gauff didn’t need her best, but winning with her “B” game and not letting up pressure in the face of a player with a game as high-risk and unpredictable as Ostapenko’s was a gratifying part of the victory.

“Playing Jelena, you know that 6-0 set quite literally means nothing,” Gauff said.

Arthur Ashe, the loudest stadium in a quiet sport, is ‘something special’

Gauff’s success at this U.S. Open has involved mental fortitude nearly as much as it has her physical gifts.

Thursday will be the second semifinal of her career at a Grand Slam tournament following a victorious French Open semifinal last year. The lesson she is carrying with her in New York from that run is to not allow herself to feel as though she is close to the end of the tournament. “Right now, I have the mentality that I told myself I still have another two weeks to play,” she said.

It helps that Gauff feels less emotionally drained, as she put it, than she would during a long run in her earlier days. Her responsibilities haven’t waned and her tennis schedule has not gotten any lighter, but she has had an attitude shift — she is coping better with the pressure and having more fun on the court. She has often played just before Novak Djokovic at Arthur Ashe Stadium and has taken to introducing him to the crowd after her matches.

“I’ll take the mic for this,” she told ESPN’s Pam Shriver. “Coming up next is the No. 1 player in the world, after the end of this tournament . . . 23 Slams, I believe: Novak Djokovic! Wooooo!”

Little moments such as that help keep Gauff loose for big moments on the court — or when she inevitably hears the stat about being the first American teen to reach a milestone since Serena Williams.

“Oh, it means a lot to me. Being in any sentence with her is great. I mean, she’s the greatest player of all time. You know, I’m nothing close to that yet. I’m just really honored to be in the same sentence as her,” Gauff said. “… She’s my idol. I think if you told me when I was younger that I would be in these same stat lines as her, I would freak out. I’m still trying not to think about it a lot, because I don’t want to get my head big or add pressure, but it is a cool moment to have that stat alongside her.”

On such a hot day, Gauff happily took all the cool moments she could get.

POST AUTHOR: Ava Wallace

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