In section 131 at Arthur Ashe Stadium, we were waiting for the moment to arrive right up until it did. Patience is sometimes the price of greatness, and it’s rarely a price that’s too steep. In Saturday’s U.S. Open final, the 19-year-old prodigy Coco Gauff faced down fate, failure, and fury and returned neither broken nor untouched. That’s pretty much the Holy Grail of sports drama, if ever there was one.
Gauff lagged out of the gate against second-ranked Aryna Sabalenka, fumbled the opening set, and nearly dug her own tomb. Then, like any decent miracle maker, she pulled herself out. A string of spitball returns from the outer reaches of the baseline earned Gauff a break. A ground game tighter than concrete helped her keep it. At an hour and 24 minutes, she evened the score at one set apiece. Less than 45 minutes later, she had both hands gripped around the champions trophy.
In the better part of a fortnight, Gauff circled her first Grand Slam victory, sized it up, and claimed it. Across seven matches she dismantled one opponent after another, wielding a multi-blade of iron-clad defense, smoldering serves, and an untouchably cool temperament. When Saturday’s match ended, applause flowed down the densely packed slopes of the stadium, and tears flooded Gauff’s eyes. She ran into the crowd and fell into her parents’ arms. Four years after breaking onto the scene by upsetting her idol Venus Williams, the teen opened the door to the rest of her career.
Gauff was 4 when she told her family she wanted to be the greatest tennis player not just in the world, but for all time. She was 8 when she started to play in organized leagues, her lanky frame still hiding in plain sight. Her mother and father, both college athletes in their own right, followed the scriptures of the Williams family before them, each quitting their jobs in dedication to their daughter’s training. They lost out on bread. (“We went from a two-income home to a no-income home,” her father once said.) They packed their lives up for tennis academies and temperamental coaches. They learned to be homeschool teachers and athletic trainers and business agents.
All the while, their daughter honed her skills from the raw, gangly, early models of herself, once described by a coach as “a track star that has a tennis racket in her hand,” to the apex defender she is today. She molded a backhand sharp enough to draw blood; patterned the footwork necessary to prowl the court. As a pro, Gauff sharpened her service game, working to shorten volleys with quick, decisive kill strokes, as her body developed.
To blossom she honed not only her physical acumen but also her emotional intelligence. She found a purpose outside the game, quoting Dr. King in the Florida heat at the height of the protests in 2020. She started to journal her thoughts and dreams and fears day after day. On the court Gauff learned to stay centered and treat her failures and successes with the same degree of remove. With every year she has improved incrementally, climbing the worldwide rankings, often taking a step back for each step forward. In 2022, she made her first Grand Slam final at the French Open, only to be beaten in straight sets by the top-ranked player in the world, Iga Swiatek. Gauff went a full year without winning another tournament and revamped her coaching team just a few months before the U.S. Open.
It took more than a village to raise her. Gauff has talked often about how she would mimic the serving motions of both Williams sisters, hanging posters of each on her bedroom walls. At the root of every evolution of her game are two dueling worlds within tennis. One is the domain of the Black American lineage in the sport: the Williams sisters, Arthur Ashe, Althea Gibson, and the coaches and sponsors and allies who helped them make space for themselves in a game bereft of room. There’s no Coco Gauff without this lineage because there’s no path for a Coco Gauff to walk on without them paving it first. The other domain is the modern tennis development apparatus, the selective academies, the junior circuits, the club politics and unending emphasis on skill maximization—the system that kindles stars and burns them out.
The messy truth is that Gauff’s 2023 U.S. Open title is best understood as a product of both spaces in the sport. Try to figure out which world she had to strictly overcome and which she mostly benefited from, and you’ll tie yourself in knots. The only constant, the only solid thing through all of her trials is Gauff: a young woman with an absurd dream, in an absurd time, who by some cosmic randomness, or fate, or god, or whatever you would like to call it, has all the ingredients—mobility, vision, precision, obsession—to make that dream reality.
There are some other names that come to mind when you think of all that, and they’ve got a shitload of titles. And since what we’re really talking about, whenever we talk about Coco, is the future of women’s tennis in America, this too should be said: The Williams sisters are not coming back through that door. For the better part of three decades, U.S. tennis has essentially existed in the gravitational wake of its uninvited first family: Venus, Serena, Richard, Oracene. Now, they appear to have left the highest level of competition in the sport behind. The period that follows their departure is already, and will continue to be, one defined by anticipation, that emptiness—as old as the sport, as old as all sports—that blankets a people without an idol. There’s a chance that we will look back at Saturday as the moment that the wait ended—and with Gauff’s victory, what we know now is that this chance is not infinitesimal.
It’s the size of her horizons.
The lowdown on chosen ones is: You never really know—until you do. Coco’s through the door. Time to watch how she moves.