NEW YORK — With a straight-sets win over Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic Thursday night, Coco Gauff became the youngest American player to reach the US Open final since 17-year-old Serena Williams in 1999. But that does little justice to describe the wacky night Gauff endured for a shot at winning her first major title on Saturday.
There was a shoeless protester. A 49-minute delay. A 40-shot rally.
“It was a lot of emotional challenges,” Gauff said. “But I think I did a good job of staying focused. I’m just really proud of myself today.”
Here are four takeaways from a bizarre night in New York.
Gauff can handle distractions
Before the match and throughout this tournament, Gauff has spoken about wanting to keep her focus on her side of the court. To not allow herself to be drawn into whatever her opponent is doing, good or bad, or what’s happening in the crowd, on Twitter or in her player’s box. That game plan was tested over and again Thursday night.
The headlining moment happened an hour into the match, when a protester in an “End Fossil Fuels” T-shirt glued his bare feet to the concrete floor of Arthur Ashe Stadium and stopped play for nearly 50 minutes as NYPD officers and medical personnel figured out how to remove the man from his seat.
“I just treated it like a rain delay,” Gauff said after the match. “We had to leave the court and didn’t know how long it would be, five minutes or an hour. It was tough to figure out if we stay warm or conserve energy. After, like, 10 minutes of waiting, I decided to change my clothes and eat a bar.”
When play resumed, Gauff was up a set and a game. Muchova held serve and Gauff took the next game at love. Both women seemed to elevate their play until Gauff earned her first opportunity to close out the match. But Muchova saved match point, broke Gauff back and extended play for nearly another half hour.
“I told myself, trust yourself in the moment and you can’t take back mistakes,” Gauff said. “I was trying to focus on my side and accept the good balls she hit.”
If any moment demonstrated Gauff’s ability to do that, despite a raucous crowd and mounting pressure, it was at deuce in the final game of the second set. Muchova had saved five match points and served to start what would become the longest rally of the tournament.
“I knew I had the legs and the lungs to outlast her,” Gauff said of the thrilling 40-shot point. “It was whether I had the mentality and patience to do it. After 10 or 15 shots, I was, like, ‘Well, this is going to change the match.’ I knew that if I could win that rally, that next match point was going to go my way. That’s what happened.”
She’s putting her plan into action
Gauff also speaks a lot about the perspective she has gained since losing the 2022 French Open final to Iga Swiatek. The 19-year-old said she put too much pressure on every moment back then, tied her self-worth to wins and losses and believed people expected her to win every match. It didn’t matter that she was playing in her first major final and against the No. 1 player in the world. She had to win. When she didn’t, she was devastated.
“I realized I play good tennis when I’m relaxed,” Gauff said Thursday. “I have to believe in myself, and I didn’t believe in myself then.”
Anyone who has watched Gauff play since her loss in the first round at Wimbledon in July knows that sentiment is more than lip service. She is playing loose and confident and seems comfortable in her decision-making on court and in her interactions with the media after matches. She also has won 17 of 18 matches since that Wimbledon exit.
After Thursday’s match, Gauff said she planned to watch anime and not the night match, to wind down after her win. “This time around, I have been focusing more on my expectations of myself,” Gauff said. “I’m not going on social media or listening to people who believe that I can or believe that I can’t. I really believe that now I have the maturity and ability to do it.”
Sounds like a player who’s ready to win a major.
She still has vulnerabilities
Gauff’s forehand has long been offered as the reason for her inconsistent results at tournaments. Then this summer, she added speed to the shot, improved her accuracy and won the two biggest titles of her career.
The shot is still far from perfect, but she plays more variations of it. Thursday, she committed 11 of 12 unforced errors on her forehand side in the first nine games of the match. But she also played stellar defense and erased Muchova’s advantage at the net. She mixed up her shots, charged the net more frequently and leaned on her fitness in long rallies. She knows her forehand still needs work, and she makes up for it with the rest of her game.
She might be omniscient
Gauff said she woke up Thursday morning and had a premonition. “The crazy thing is I had this thought. I told myself, ‘I bet there’s going to be a climate change protest in the final,’” she said. “When it happened, I knew. I told the ref it was a protest. I don’t know. Something this morning told me it would happen this weekend. It happened at the French Open and at Wimbledon and nothing had happened yet at the US Open, so I thought maybe the trend will continue.”
Maybe she wakes up Saturday morning with a thought about lifting the US Open trophy.