Most prodigies never live up to the hype. Even for those who were sufficiently talented in the first place, there are so many obstacles on the pathway to success, so many ways that a sporting career can be derailed.
Since her breakthrough four years ago, however, Coco Gauff has shown that her mental fortitude and emotional maturity are equal to any singular tennis shot and those qualities have carried her all the way to the top. In the biggest match of her life against the best player in the world, Gauff drew upon those qualities once more as she brilliantly recovered from a one-set deficit to topple Aryna Sabalenka, the second seed, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2.
With her first grand slam title, the 19-year-old has completed an astonishing, dominant hard court swing that was initially heading in the opposite direction after a painful first round exit at Wimbledon.
Every other week since has seen Gauff better her best title, winning the Washington WTA 500 event, then Cincinnati, a WTA 1000 tournament, before closing off the summer with a dream ending: the US Open trophy in her hands.
Gauff is the third American teenager to win the US Open, following in the footsteps of her idol Serena Williams in 1999. She has now won 12 matches in succession and 18 of her last 19 since that Wimbledon defeat. After the summer of Coco, the sixth seed will rise to a new career high of No 3 in the WTA rankings.
Even before the tournament began, this was Gauff’s event. Her face was plastered on adverts, flyers and public transport across the city. So many people, fans and celebrities alike, were coming only for her. As she entered the court ahead of her higher-ranked opponent, the crowd received her with a standing ovation.
Faced with a barrage of Sabalenka’s blows directed at her forehand, Gauff scrambled and defended desperately. But while the Belarusian’s winners piled up, so too did her errors, particularly on her forehand wing as Gauff’s retrieval skills constantly forced her to play one extra ball.
After the pair traded breaks early on, the decisive game of the opening set came at 3-2 as Gauff generated two break points. Sabalenka produced an enormous forehand winner and an ace on those two break points before holding serve with a roar and rolling through the set.
But Gauff refused to cower to the occasion. She started the second set by finding a higher gear with her serve, settling into the set with two solid service holds as the crowd spontaneously showered her with cheers. She responded by frequently lighting up the stadium with her defence, chasing down impossible balls and either finding incredible passing shots or putting the ball into difficult positions on the court.
Gauff’s forehand, one of the topics of the season, had been incessantly broken down by Sabalenka in the opening set. But as the match went on it gradually began to hold up more reliably under pressure and respond with greater depth as her opponent’s forehand crumbled.
The difficulty of trying to hit through Gauff’s defences eventually showed in the second set as the American broke serve for a 3-1 lead. With the break secured, Gauff served brilliantly. She absorbed Sabalenka’s immense pace, coming up with increasingly sublime retrievals, and forced a decisive set.
By the final set, the momentum was firmly behind Gauff’s back. At the urging of a frenzied crowd, she ran with it as far as she could go. She was everywhere, throwing herself from corner to corner, her anticipation and movement allowing her to chase down every last ball.
The few times Sabalenka tried to rein in her power and outmanoeuvre the American, Gauff sucked her into long, exhausting rallies until she drew out an error. Otherwise, Gauff’s defence drew out the old Sabalenka as she continually enticed Sabalenka into overhitting.
She broke serve in the opening game and she never looked back. With the American leading 4-1 in the third set with a double break, Sabalenka took a medical timeout for her left thigh. Gauff immediately dropped serve after the break but she was not to be stopped. She broke back and served out an incredible victory.
After enjoying such unparalleled success in her youth, breaking records throughout, Gauff’s pathway to this defining moment in her career has been fascinating. Since her emergence at 15, she has had to learn how to lose, to take the correct lessons from the defeats and to understand that she is on her own path in her own time.
The hype and pressure on her shoulders has, at times, seemed suffocating yet she has shouldered that burden with incredible poise.
Earlier this year, when it seemed like her progress may have stagnated, Gauff was the first to recognise that changes might be necessary for her to fulfil her lofty goals. With her difficulties came some criticism, particularly months of discourse over the evolution of her forehand, but Gauff managed to block out the noise and focus on employing the right people in order to.
Earlier in the tournament, Gauff admitted that she didn’t expect to produce such a brilliant summer so soon – she thought she would need more time to develop her game. But she has worked hard with the right attitude and perspective, and her dream scenario played out on Saturday night in a thumping Arthur Ashe Stadium.