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Column: Coco Gauff’s rising fame at U.S. Open does little to change her game

Coco Gauff returns a shot during a doubles match on Friday at the U.S. Open.
Coco Gauff returns a shot during a doubles match on Friday at the U.S. Open.
(Kevin Hagen / Associated Press)

From a distance, the pattern on the outfit that Coco Gauff has been wearing at the U.S. Open looks like an unremarkable pastel print. Closer examination shows it’s a clever collage of aerial views of New York City tennis courts. All that’s missing is a depiction of the overflow crowds that have surrounded the courts at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center to marvel at the 15-year-old Floridian whose poise and unerring instincts are making her a star.

Gauff created ripples among tennis fans this year when she reached the fourth round at Wimbledon and lost to eventual champion Simona Halep. She has gone on to create waves that reach well beyond these busy grounds by winning a pair of three-set matches in her first venture into the main draw at the U.S. Open, playing a versatile game with passion and intelligence. According to ESPN, viewership on ESPN2 for its broadcast on Thursday of Gauff’s second-round victory over veteran Timea Babos of Hungary peaked at the end to hit 2,155,000, the highlight of its first four broadcast days.

“I think she’s just incredibly talented, you know,” Serena Williams said Friday. “I think anyone that’s 15 playing like that, people are going to be drawn to them. I think that’s pretty awesome.”

No matter what else she does here Gauff has already won, giving her the freedom to be relaxed when she faces Naomi Osaka, the defending champion and No. 1 seed, on Saturday on the grand stage of Arthur Ashe Stadium. The place holds more than 23,000 people and it’s sure to be packed for the match between two young women who represent the best of the sport’s present and such great potential to shape its future. They’re fascinating to watch for who they are now and to imagine what they will be as they position themselves to succeed Serena Williams, Venus Williams and other longtime standouts as the faces of tennis.

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Fans adore them, drawn by their youth and energy and humble natures. Tournament schedule makers certainly didn’t anticipate Gauff’s appeal when they scheduled her doubles match alongside 17-year-old Caty McNally on tiny Court 5 on Friday, causing pedestrian traffic jams.

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More telling, their peers respect them. Australian Alex de Minaur, considered a next-generation star on the men’s side, called Gauff’s accomplishments “pretty sensational” and was entertained by her match against Babos. “I think between the players, I’m sure a lot of even the guys would have tuned in to watch that match,” he said.

Ouch.

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Roger Federer, who breezed through a routine 6-2, 6-2, 6-1 victory over Dan Evans of Great Britain Friday afternoon, said he was impressed when he saw Gauff battle past Babos on Thursday. However, he considers Osaka the favorite on Saturday. “But I think playing at home, there is always a shot and a chance, and she’s done so well again here this tournament,” Federer said of Gauff. “I think we’re all a bit surprised that she’s able to back it up after Wimbledon, you know, which was already an incredible run.”

With a long match behind her on Thursday and the biggest match of her young career looming on Saturday, Gauff could have chosen to skip her doubles match. Instead, she and McNally sweated out a 7-6 (6), 6-2 victory over Julia Goerges and Katerina Siniakova, lapping up the crowd’s energy. Rules adopted by the Women’s Tennis Assn. to minimize the stress on young players limit 15-year-olds to up to 10 professional events (plus the WTA championships, if they qualify, and Fed Cup play). Gauff loves competing, and the thought of limiting her activity to a practice never occurred to her.

It was suggested to her at a news conference on Friday that her doubles victory was a good way to back up her singles triumph, but she didn’t see it that way. “It feels great. Just another tournament and another opportunity for me to get better, so I wouldn’t say backing up anything. Just having fun,” she said.

In addition to being enjoyable, she values playing doubles as an opportunity to refine her skills and, possibly, boost her game against the more experienced Osaka. “We’ll see [Saturday], to be honest, how much,” Gauff said, “but I think it helped me a lot to get just some extra serves in and maybe do some serves I wouldn’t normally do in singles. You obviously hit a lot of different shots and deal with quick hands and I think it will come in handy [Saturday].”

Williams, who advanced to the fourth round with a 6-3, 6-2 decision over Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic on Friday, said she plans to pay close attention to the Gauff-Osaka match.

“I think it’s super exciting tennis. Coco is obviously much, much younger than Naomi, if you could say that, because Naomi is incredibly young. But it’s shocking to say that Coco is about six years younger,” Williams said.

“I definitely think it’s the future of women’s tennis. And I’m really excited to just be a fangirl and kind of watch.”

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She’s certainly not alone.


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