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Coco Gauff falls back on her appetite to fight to lift US Open title with comeback win

Midway through the second set of her US Open final against Aryna Sabalenka on Saturday, Coco Gauff made her soon-to-be World No. 1 opponent pay for leaving a backhand slice short, hitting a backhand crosscourt winner on the run, sending the American crowd into raptures and letting out a roar for the first time in the match. It was the moment she turned it around.

After dropping a streaky first set, and narrowly escaping two break points in the opening game of the second, Gauff would win 10 of the next 15 games to complete the recovery and win her maiden Grand Slam title by defeating Sabalenka 2-6, 6-3, 6-3. By doing so, she became just the third American teenager to win the US Open, the first since Serena Williams in 1999.

Career trajectories of sporting prodigies often make for compelling storytelling because they point to a stark contrast between physical development and emotional maturity. For a player like Gauff, anointed as one of the ‘next big things’ of the sport after making her breakthrough at Wimbledon four years ago at the tender age of 15, the long period between the hype taking shape and getting the results to back it up put her at extreme risk of mental burnout.

But in a Major final that was scarcely decided on superior shotmaking or high-quality tennis, the 19-year-old fell back on her impressive mental fortitude and appetite to fight to battle back and rise to the occasion, just as much as she depended on her explosive serve and footspeed, and formidable two-handed backhand.

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Gauff showed her ability to bounce back just by arriving at Flushing Meadows for the final. After losing to Sofia Kenin in the first round at Wimbledon two months ago, Gauff admitted later that she was doubting whether she would ever win a Grand Slam again. In the six weeks that followed, she won her first WTA 500 event in Washington, her first WTA 1000 event in Cincinnati, and now her first Grand Slam in New York. The US Open was not an easy ride either; she was made to dig deep and turn around one-set deficits in two of her first three rounds, and was taken to three testing sets once again in the fourth.

Gauff was able to draw from all that experience to build up steam for her fight back. Sabalenka – who had made a formidable recovery of her own against Madison Keys in the semifinal, coming back from losing the first set 0-6 to win the match on two successive tiebreakers – evidently came out of the blocks as the more dominant player.

Relying on anticipation, defense

Unlike her victory over Elena Rybakina in the Australian Open final this year – one of the best shotmaking displays of the year – Sabalenka did not have to be at her best to fashion the lead. Isolating Gauff’s weaker forehand and swinging at the ball as hard as the big-hitting Belarusian usually does, she raced into a 6-2 lead in a set when she made only half (52%) of her first serves and hit 8 winners compared to 14 unforced errors.

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Gauff’s comeback found flight after Sabalenka’s power forced her to abandon her attacking, first-strike style, instead relying more on her superior athleticism and anticipation to retreat into a more defensive playing style, limiting errors of her own, redirecting pace, and getting balls back into play that forced Sabalenka to overhit and continually leak unforced errors – she ended the final having made 46.

In the final two sets, she served exceptionally well, dropping it only once, at the end of the third before breaking back immediately and serving out the win with a fine backhand passing shot winner, following which she fell to the ground weeping. An outpouring of emotion with her family and team, after coping with the sheer weight of expectations that swirled around her during her two-week run, followed.

Gauff has yet to hit the ceiling of her talent. The American still has to make improvements to her forehand, which continually falls apart when put under pressure by elite opponents, and could do by adding variety to her game in the form of slices, drop shots, and more deft net play.

But in winning her first Major, as far as fight, intensity, problem-solving, and sheer physicality are concerned, Gauff proved she is now among the best in the world.

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