Coco Gauff, at the U.S. Open, channelling her inner Serena Williams.
NEW YORK —
No, no, no.
The game wasn’t going to get away from her. The set wasn’t going to get away from her. The moment wasn’t going to slip away.
Coco Gauff had used her range and speed to catch up to a shot by Zhang Shuai and return it with her bread-and-butter backhand late in the second set of their fourth-round match Sunday at Arthur Ashe Stadium. Zhang responded with a forehand volley at the net. It fell short.
While cheers of a rowdy crowd swirled around her, Gauff looked toward her coaches and supporters and wagged her right index finger in a classic Dikembe Mutombo motion.
No, no, no. She would not be stopped.
To emphasize her point later, the 18-year-old Floridian copied a move popularized by the City Girls rap/hip-hop duo of JT and Yung Miami, sweeping her long-nailed fingers in front of her throat. It wasn’t a throat slash, she said afterward, but a way to say period, the discussion is over.
Four points later, the discussion was over when Zhang netted a backhand. Gauff was a 7-5, 7-5 winner and a first-time quarterfinalist at the U.S. Open, backing up her surprise runner-up finish in the French Open three months ago.
The onetime prodigy who reached the round of 16 at Wimbledon three years ago has grown into a thoughtful young woman who isn’t above giggling at ancient media representatives who were clueless about City Girls or the “period” gesture. Gauff, who also ranks No. 1 in the world in doubles but lost in the first round here with partner Jessica Pegula, has become more confident about her extraordinary talent and more comfortable with her place on the court and in the world.
As a child she had a poster of Serena Williams on her bedroom wall. Now she’s in position to succeed Williams as one of the sport’s most prominent faces.
“I think that’s been the hope and I think that she has the maturity and ability to do that,” ESPN commentator Pam Shriver said. “In order to be the face of tennis in the same sense as Serena is such a tough one, following someone who has won 23 majors. And she obviously has to win one to truly be that. But she has all of the presence and then some, off the court. She’s a different personality from Serena but very similar in their fight, in their competitiveness.”
The crowd recognized that and chanted her name. She had to work hard to stay in the zone and avoid smiling because it was so surreal.
“I told my team after the match, for some reason I’m so much more animated. I found, like, a chill,” said Gauff, who will face Caroline Garcia of France in a quarterfinal on Tuesday.
“When the moment is right, sometimes I don’t even know what my reaction is going to be after I win a point. I wasn’t thinking about Mutombo when I did that. I feel like a wall out there, she was running me so much. It’s like, ‘You can’t get past me today.’”
Gauff hasn’t lost a set here, but she had to come back twice Sunday to keep that intact. Zhang had taken a 5-4 lead in the opening set but Gauff held serve in the next game, earned a break for a 6-5 lead, and converted her second set point. Zhang, the oldest woman in the fourth round here at 33, broke Gauff’s serve to take a 5-3 lead in the second set and had a set point in the ninth game before Gauff pushed back and won the last four games.
“I think I was always fighting for every point, but I think I’m doing it in a smarter way,” she said. “I think that just comes from learning from the same mistake over and over and over again.”
Early success in tennis isn’t a guarantee of long-term prosperity. Naomi Osaka, who won her first Grand Slam singles title at 20 and her fourth a few months after she turned 23, has suffered depression and anxiety and has dropped to 44th in the rankings. She lost in the first round here. Ashleigh Barty stepped away from tennis in 2014 to clear her head and returned to win three Slam titles before she surprisingly retired this year at 25, while she was ranked No. 1 in the world. The demands and pressure can be overwhelming.
What Gauff needs most, even more than she needs a stronger second serve and improved forehand grip, is space to breathe. She needs trustworthy people around her who work for her and don’t see her as a meal ticket.
She appears to be enjoying a stable situation. She lives in Delray Beach, Fla., with her parents; her father, Corey, played basketball at Georgia State, and her mother, Candi, competed in track and field at Florida State. She has two younger brothers. She’s represented by the agency co-created by Roger Federer, Team 8.
“She’s so thoughtful for someone so young, and I think that’s kudos to her parents and her family life,” Shriver said. “It just feels like she has such a solid anchor between the generations of her family, her siblings, her team.”
Gauff said she couldn’t speak for other players but said her family has never burdened her. “I think for sure I felt the pressure. For sure I felt the expectations,” she said. “But I also think what’s in my head, stepping on the court I feel like all of that goes away. I’m just lucky that I’m able to find that mindset.
“I hope I can stay in this mindset, but I can’t speak for the future.”
Is that future bright? Yes, yes, yes.