One year after Serena Williams bade an emotional farewell to tennis in front of an adoring crowd at Flushing Meadows, Coco Gauff is dreaming of continuing the 23-time Grand Slam champion’s legacy when the US Open gets underway next week.
The 19-year-old from Florida, who grew up idolising the now-retired Williams, heads into the New York showpiece with realistic hopes of landing her first Grand Slam title after an impressive run of results in the WTA Tour’s North American hardcourt swing.
She won her second title of the season at the Washington Open in early August and then followed an encouraging run to the quarter-finals of the Canadian Open with a breakthrough victory in Cincinnati last weekend - her first WTA 1000 title.
That win in Cincinnati also included a semifinal victory against world number one and reigning US Open champion Iga Swiatek - the first time Gauff has beaten the Polish four-time Grand Slam singles champion in eight meetings.
Gauff’s form over the past month suggests that the teenager is finally ready to deliver in the demanding crucible of a Grand Slam tennis tournament, four years after she announced herself on the world stage with a scintillating run to the fourth round of Wimbledon as a 15-year-old qualifier.
The world number six says her recent success has been built on learning how to grind out victories even when she is not playing her best tennis.
“I think that’s what makes a champion - how you’re doing on the days you aren’t feeling so great,” she said after her win in Cincinnati.
Gauff later revealed she spent “a lot of nights at home crying” earlier in the season as she struggled to discover her best form.
“For me, it was just difficult because I knew what I needed to improve,” Gauff said.
“I was going in practice and I was working on it. It just wasn’t translating into the matches. It still can get a lot better, the things I want to improve.”
- Upward progress -
If Gauff’s upward trajectory continues over the next fortnight, there is every chance she can become only the fifth Black woman to win the US Open in the Open era, following in the footsteps of Serena and Venus Williams, Sloane Stephens and Naomi Osaka.
With Serena Williams having departed the stage, Gauff is acutely aware that she is seen by many as the likeliest standard-bearer for the next generation of African-American women tennis players.
It is a responsibility the teenager readily embraces, even if she does not believe she bears comparison to Serena Williams.
“It’s something that I don’t take lightly,” Gauff said.
“Sometimes I guess it increases the pressure because I know that this community of people, the community of people of colour, black people, look up to me a lot.
“Especially with Serena retiring, people consider me the next leader or something of tennis.
“I don’t put myself in that box because Serena is the G.O.A.T. for a reason. It’s the ‘greatest of all time’. I’m part of all time, so I don’t know if I’ll be able to go as far as she did. That’s the dream.
“For me, it’s just trying my best to be the best version of myself and being the best Coco on and off the court. I try to pay attention to how I present myself and the causes that I support off the court.”
The sixth-seeded Gauff’s path to the title in New York will not be easy however, with the American on course for a quarter-final showdown with defending champion Swiatek. Elena Rybakina, the 2022 Wimbledon champion, is also in Gauff’s side of the draw.
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