A few hours before Serena Williams would walk into Arthur Ashe Stadium on Wednesday night for the second-round match everyone was waiting for, Coco Gauff warmed up the hardcourt with a win.
The experience wasn’t lost on Gauff, 18, who has credited Williams for showing her that being a star in professional tennis as a Black woman was possible. She said it was “an honor to open up for her.”
The win wasn’t bad either.
After Gauff and Elena-Gabriela Ruse of Romania split the first two games of the first set of Wednesday’s second-round match, Gauff quickly took control.
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Gauff went on to win the next two games. But while a point away from claiming a third straight game, she double-faulted, and the Gauff-favoring crowd in New York let out a sigh of disappointment, and Gauff muttered quietly to herself in frustration. Gauff responded with back-to-back powerful aces, leaving Ruse frozen and leaning awkwardly as the ball blazed past her like a batter caught off guard by a fastball.
The moment reflected one of Gauff’s weaknesses and, at the same token, offered a glimpse of the talent that has many crowning her as the future of American tennis. Gauff went on to win the set and the match over Ruse, 6-2, 7-6 (4). Gauff will take on her American compatriot Madison Keys in the third round. Keys, ranked 20th in women’s singles, defeated Gauff at Adelaide International 2 in January on her way to winning the tournament.
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“I learned a lot from that match,” Gauff said. “In the beginning of the year I felt like in general I just wasn’t in a good head space and I wasn’t confident in my tennis, but I feel like now I’m really confident in my tennis and I feel like that maybe might change the outcome of the match.”
Wednesday’s match was the second Gauff and Ruse in their careers. They had faced off in June at Wimbledon, where Gauff bested Ruse in three sets.
At times, it seemed like Wednesday’s match would need a third set, too. The two were evenly matched early in the second set. Gauff’s shot to win the third game came as she was tracking a ball down the baseline — with her braids flowing behind her — hitting the ball to the opposite side of the court to draw roars from the crowd. The momentum seemed in her favor, but Ruse responded by winning three games to take a 5-3 lead and silence the crowd.
Gauff bounced back with a three-game win streak of her own to take a 6-5 lead. With one point away from a win and the crowd on her side, Gauff double-faulted, sending the match to a tiebreaker. After splitting the first four points, Gauff won five of the next seven to win the match. The winning point came from a backhand that was too powerful for Ruse to return. Gauff yelled, threw her fist in excitement and relief, and waved her arms high, igniting the crowd.
Gauff said that she would likely have lost a match like Wednesday’s in the past, but she has learned how to respond when her opponents take a lead.
“Down love to 30, 5-3, I definitely could have threw it in the can and got ready for the third set,” Gauff said, “same at 15-40, but I didn’t, and I think that shows growth.”
The third round is the furthest Gauff has advanced in the U.S. Open. She was ousted in the second round last year and the first round in 2021. The last time Gauff made it this far in the tournament, she was just 15 years old, facing Naomi Osaka, who was then the reigning champion and held the world No. 1 ranking. Osaka defeated Gauff handily in that match, 6-3, 6-0, and Gauff walked back to her bench in tears before Osaka invited her to do the post-match interview with her.
“I’m going to learn a lot from this match,” Gauff said then, through tears.
At 15, Gauff became a marquee name in tennis after defeating Venus Williams at Wimbledon, when she was competing as the youngest player ever in the women’s main draw. She now has a signature shoe with New Balance, (she sported a luminous pink and green version of it Wednesday) and has a deal with the Italian food brand, Barilla, but she has yet to win a major title.
Unlike for Serena Williams’s first-round match Monday, Gauff said she would not be in the stands Wednesday because she would be receiving her post-match medical treatment and had a doubles match Thursday morning, but she would be watching on television in the stadium.
“Maybe at the end if it’s not too late I’ll catch the end of it,” said.
“If it goes those three sets I probably won’t be staying to the end, unfortunately. I would love to but that’s the problem when you have to play and when you like tennis as a fan, too.”