US Open 2023 Final: How Coco Gauff Fulfilled Her Potential In New York9 min read
Shortly after she won the US Open title, there was a video doing the rounds on social media of Coco Gauff dancing on Arthur Ashe Stadium as an excited eight-year-old.
Eleven years later, the American teenager was standing in the same stadium – this time on the court lifting a Grand Slam trophy like she had long dreamed.
After beating Aryna Sabalenka 2-6 6-3 6-2 in Saturday’s New York showpiece, she took the microphone to deliver an accomplished and heartfelt speech that covered every base.
She spilled the secret of her dad Corey crying in celebration – “he thinks he is hard” – and also threw shade on the people who doubted whether she would live up to the “hype”.
“I want to say ‘thank you’ to the people who didn’t believe in me,” she said.
“I tried my best to carry on with with grace but, honestly, to those who thought you were putting water on my fire, you were really adding gas to it.
“I’m burning so bright right now.”
Without any written notes in front of her, she also thanked her parents, grandparents, coaches and the crowd and spoke of the importance of her faith.
Crediting Billie Jean King, the pioneering major champion who fought for gender equality in the sport, for enabling her to take home a $3m prize pot was another endearing touch.
Gauff had even called one of her brothers while waiting for the trophy ceremony but had to hang up because the noise in the stadium was “so loud” and “hurting” her ears.
She was prepared for this moment and is also ready for whatever comes next.
“I feel like this is a big achievement, but honestly I feel like I’ve been so used to being in the public eye since I was basically 15 years old in high school,” she said.
“I’m sure it might be a much bigger scale now because of this achievement, but I’m ready. I embrace it.
“I think the pressure has been taken off a little bit and I still am hungry for more.”
Not only has Gauff become a leading light in the sport because of her tennis ability, but also because of her engaging personality.
In simple terms, she has the one ingredient you can’t teach or learn: star quality.
And she uses her voice – and uses it powerfully. She has also spoken out strongly in the past about racial injustice and gun crime in the United States.
“She’s well beyond her years,” Jarmere Jenkins, part of Gauff’s new-look coaching team, told BBC Sport.
“For a 19-year-old, how grounded she is, how well spoken she is, it’s incredible. I love how she’s an advocate.
“Me at 19? I’m so glad I didn’t have the spotlight. I wouldn’t know how to handle it.”
How Gauff went from drawing board to reviving dying dream
If a picture paints a thousand words, the image of Gauff disconsolately trudging off court at Wimbledon in July told us everything.
The youngster looked startled, drained even, as the emotion of a humbling first-round defeat by qualifier Sofia Kenin hit home.
Gauff’s usual effervescence had, understandably, still not returned when she spoke to the media a couple of hours later.
While displaying her equally-omnipresent eloquence, the answers about the loss were straight to the point.
Frustrated. Disappointed. A catalyst to work even harder.
“I feel like I have been working hard, but clearly it’s not enough. I have to go back to the drawing board and see where I need to improve,” Gauff said at the All England Club.
Two months later she has improved considerably.
On Saturday, Gauff beat incoming world number one Sabalenka to win a maiden Grand Slam title.
It came on the back of a morale-boosting run during the North American hard-court swing, where she won the two biggest titles of her career so far in Washington and Cincinnati.
“I felt like I lost a little bit of the dream as this journey has gone on – for sure, after the Wimbledon loss,” Gauff said after her US Open victory.
“I felt like people were saying ‘Oh, she’s hit her peak and she’s done. It was all hype’.
“I see the comments. People don’t think I see it but I see it. I know who’s talking trash.
“So this means a lot to me. I wish I could give this trophy to my past self so she can be like ‘All those tears are for this moment’.”
Maturing teenager handles the expectation
Gauff’s emergence at Wimbledon in 2019 captured the world’s attention, leading to many predictions – some wilder than others – about how many Grand Slam titles she would go on to win.
The more measured analysis was that she would need time to mature on the court and develop her game when she transitioned full-time to the WTA Tour.
Her progress since then had been significant but steady, becoming a fixture in the world’s top 10 over the past 12 months without winning a major title.
Defeat in the French Open final last year, winning just four games against Iga Swiatek, left Gauff in tears as she sat on court afterwards.
“Putting together the title win in [Washington] DC was huge,” Jenkins said.
“It let her know that she can do this, she belongs here and gave her a boost of confidence. We’ve been able to ride that momentum since.
“Coco has always belonged. She has always proven she is meant for the big lights.
“The tools were already there. People say things about technique but sometimes what is missing is the faith.
“In New York she has been able to show up and execute the game plan. She has been solid: mentally, spiritually and emotionally.”
How an experienced team has provided belief
One of the key factors behind Gauff’s improved results has been the recently-assembled coaching team guiding her.
Pere Riba, a Spaniard who previously worked with Chinese player Zheng Qinwen, heads up the staff.
The vastly-experienced Brad Gilbert – best known for helping Andre Agassi win six major titles and coaching Andy Murray – arrived last month as a consultant.
Jenkins, another American who used to be Serena Williams’ hitting partner, was also brought in earlier this year.
“Having all these experiences in one team really gave her a boost of confidence,” Jenkins said.
“It enabled her to think: ‘These guys know what they’re talking about and I trust what they’re saying. All I have to do is listen, apply it and execute it’.”
Gauff’s forehand has been identified as a weakness and is often targeted by opponents, including Sabalenka in Saturday’s final.
Jenkins, however, disputes it was a serious technical issue.
“We didn’t do anything technically with her forehand,” he said.
“We gave her a couple of mental representations that she could use when she is out there, whether it be footwork or being aggressive, picking the right moments and managing it well.
“For me there have been people with way worse situations going on with their forehand than Coco and been able to win Grand Slams.
“It was never about the technique. It was about the belief, the confidence and the faith.”
Why Gilbert helps lighten the mood
A lot of attention has been placed on Gilbert, a former world number four player turned coach and commentator.
Twenty years ago, he famously wrote a book called Winning Ugly: Mental Warfare in Tennis.
Gauff has been doing just that at Flushing Meadows, overcoming adversity in several of her matches on her way to the final and coming from behind against Sabalenka.
“When you’re confident and clear in what you’ve got to do it puts your mind at ease,” Jenkins said.
“Before I feel she was going out there and hoping to play well. Now she is going into a match like ‘I’ve got this if I play well or if I don’t’.
“A lot of matches she has been winning has not been her best tennis, but the best tennis is going to come.
“Brad has a great saying that five days of the year you’re going to play great [and] five days of the year you will play terrible. In between that time you’ve got to compete your ass off.
“We’ve really embraced that mentality and it has been working.”
Finding the right blend of personalities in the team – off court as well as on – can be difficult for a player.
Gauff – who is very much her own boss but is still guided by parents Corey and Candi – has been at ease with the current dynamic, illustrated by how hilarious she has found some of Gilbert’s quirks.
Gilbert’s habit of regularly eating hard-boiled fruit sweets during matches, his tendency to use only even numbers when speaking and his unorthodox sleeping patterns provide fun talking points.
Taking it in turns to choose the music in the car rides in New York is another way for Gauff and the team to build camaraderie.
Gauff, who counts J Cole, SZA and Jaden Smith among her favourites, shares similar taste with Jenkins, while Gilbert is a classic rock man and Riba prefers Spanish dance beats.
“That’s one of the coolest experiences I’ve personally had with a team,” Jenkins said.
“We will play some tunes, talk about the match, sometimes talk about something funny which happened earlier in the day.
“It’s a really down to earth group of people and we all have the same goal in mind – trying to get Coco this first Grand Slam and then many more.”
Williams sisters ‘allowed me to believe in this dream’
As a precociously-talented black American teenager, Gauff has regularly been compared to 23-time major singles champion Serena Williams.
Gauff has followed in the footsteps of her idol this fortnight and became the first American teenager since Williams in 1999 to win the US Open final.
Asked what it meant to have her name on the trophy alongside Williams and her sister Venus, Gauff replied: “Yes, it’s crazy. I mean, they’re the reason why I have this trophy today, to be honest.
“They have allowed me to believe in this dream growing up. You know, there wasn’t too many just Black tennis players dominating the sport. It was literally, at that time when I was younger, it was just them that I can remember.
“All the things that they had to go through, they made it easier for someone like me to do this.”