Serena Williams is the story of the 2022 U.S. Open, but Coco Gauff is showing she can be the American woman who picks up the torch.
Gauff on Friday cruised into the Round of 16 for the first time at the U.S. Open, and the teenager did it with a comprehensive 6-2, 6-3 throttling of fellow American star Madison Keys, to whom she’d lost earlier this year.
“Yeah, I was definitely impressed on how I played,” said Gauff, who will next face Shuai Zhang of China. “Maddie is not an easy opponent. I lost to her in Adelaide. I learned a lot about that match. I was like, ‘If I lose, I’m not going to lose the same way.’ I was really just trying to take my ground when I could. It’s not easy to do that against her. But I’m pretty happy with how I played.”
She should be. So should American tennis fans, who are facing the reality of 23-time Grand Slam champion Williams — who took the Arthur Ashe Stadium court Friday night after Gauff and Keys — stepping away from the game. Williams will leave some big shoes to fill.
Then again, Gauff is the only women’s player with her own signature sneaker. And Friday, the 18-year-old showed not just her usual athleticism, speed and court coverage, but also an impressively cerebral game. After clinching her victory, she let out a yell — much more animated than normal — and pointed at her temple. And it’s the way she’s using that head in recent months that is so encouraging.
“In my tennis, I was losing my identity on the court. I was very confused about how I wanted to play,” Gauff said. “I got a new coach. He helped me a lot find my identity and how I want to play. So credit to him for that.”
Keys took it to Gauff as the aggressor to secure a three-set win this past January in Adelaide, Australia. Gauff learned her lesson from that loss. This time, she wasn’t just faster than her 20th-seeded friend and compatriot, but she was savvier and smarter as well.
Instead of just relying on her legs and quickness to bail her out of trouble, Gauff is learning to weaponize them. And they proved too much for Keys in this rematch.
“In January, I was relying too much on my speed because, against lower-ranked players, I could get away with just getting the ball back,” Gauff said. “Playing higher players, power hitters, I’m like, ‘OK, that’s not working anymore.’
“Now, I’m using it as a weapon, not so much as a defense mechanism; using it to aggressively get to the balls, to attack the net, instead of using it to run side-to-side. Yes, I still use it to do that. That’s tennis; you can’t help it. I think it really changed my mentality on how I’m using my athleticism. I’m not relying on it anymore. Now, I’m trying to use it as a weapon.”
Gauff — who has reached the fourth round at Wimbledon and the Australian Open, as well as the French Open quarterfinals — had never gotten past the third round at the U.S. Open, with her exit three years ago against Naomi Osaka ending in tears.
“I definitely learned a lot from that experience,” Gauff said. “I was putting so much pressure on myself. I was really just new to the scene. I was really delusional then. It was my first U.S. Open, and I thought I was going to go out in flying colors, and I didn’t. I’m definitely happy that people expect big things of me, but [now] I focus on my expectations on myself than other people’s.”
After Keys broke her right out of the gate, Gauff broke right back in a 12-point game. It ended with a 12-stroke rally, with Gauff’s forehand passing shot for the winner with Keys drawn up to the net.
Gauff went on to win four straight games, and it set the tone for the night.
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