On Thursday in the US Open semifinals against Karolina Muchova, Coco Gauff once again showed the wisdom and composure that totally belie the fact that she’s still just 19 years old.
Letting big leads slip away, seeing her opponent fend off multiple match points, a protest in the stands that led to an extended pause in play — none of it really rattled Gauff, who will play for her first Grand Slam title on Saturday.
“I had leads, lost it, and serving for [the match]. It was a lot of emotional, I guess, challenges in the match,” Gauff said afterward. “But I think I did a good job of staying focused, and I’m just really proud of myself.”
Winning her first two service games and breaking Muchova on hers, Gauff was quickly up 3-0 in the opening set and then 5-1, with Muchova totaling 11 unforced errors in the first six games.
But the 27-year-old from the Czech Republic — who might’ve had the memory of her tearful reaction to losing the French Open final to Iga Świątek in June fresh in her mind — decided she wasn’t going to fold so easily and let Gauff — considered a favorite to win this tournament when it began — walk over her and into Saturday’s women’s final.
Muchova then won three straight games, breaking Gauff twice in the process, to pull to 5-4.
Gauff didn’t waver. She took the first set in the next game.
Then came the second set. A bizarre incident on the upper deck of Arthur Ashe Stadium saw a trio of climate protestors make such a ruckus that play was stopped; it remained so for 49 minutes because while two of the protestors were escorted out by security pretty quickly, the third had apparently glued his bare feet to the concrete floor, and it took longer to get him out.
Gauff was up 1-0 at the time. As the delay dragged on, both women retreated to the cool and quiet of the locker room, with no idea how long they would be there. Once play resumed after a five-minute warm-up period, neither seemed particularly negatively affected, and it became a closely played set.
After breaking Muchova to go up 5-3, Gauff was serving for the match. Muchova staved off one match point in that game and fought off four more a couple of games later before an incredible, 40-shot rally between the two ended when Gauff caught Muchova flatfooted, responding to her drop shot with a running cross-body forehand winner deep in the baseline corner.
The crowd, heavily skewed for Team Coco, erupted.
After Muchova sent a backhand long, Gauff won on the next point, securing her first US Open final berth and second career appearance in a Grand Slam final.
It was another step in a summer full of remarkable ones for Gauff. After washing out of Wimbledon in the first round two months ago, she admitted that she had to go back to the drawing board and began turning her attention toward 2024, believing that maybe this just wasn’t going to be her year.
She has since won 17 of 18 matches.
“After Wimbledon, I wasn’t expecting to do well, honestly, in this hard court season. So I’m really proud of the way that I’ve been able to turn this season around,” Gauff said Thursday. “When I had that [loss] at Wimbledon, I was really sort of thinking for offseason and preparing for next year. And I still think I have a lot to improve.
“But, yeah, I wasn’t thinking these results would happen.”
Gauff won the DC Open, her first tournament after Wimbledon, got to the quarterfinals at Montreal and then won the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, a WTA 1000 stop. There she got her first-ever win over Świątek in the semis and beat Muchova in the finals.
Despite those titles, Gauff was telling herself that she’d just caught top-ranked opponents on a bad day, minimizing her own achievement in the process. But nothing breeds confidence like winning, and Gauff is working to silence the internal voice that was causing her to doubt herself and feel like an impostor.
“A little bit this morning, I was like, that Cincinnati final, I beat [Muchova] because I felt like she wasn’t physically ready to play that final because of the troubles she had [Muchova suffered an ankle injury at the French Open],” Gauff said.
“Then I looked in the mirror and told myself, ‘No, you’re a good player, and you can beat her regardless of her physical standard.’ I told myself, ‘You can do it again.’ It’s definitely still part of me, but I do think I’m giving myself more credit, and speaking things into existence is real, so I’ve been trying to speak more positively to myself and actually telling myself I’m a great player.”
That imposter syndrome was at play in Gauff’s first Grand Slam final at Roland Garros in 2022, when she said making it to the last match was a surprise to her.
Gauff still said making it this far — she’ll play world No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka in the final; Gauff has won three of their five meetings, though Sabalenka got the better of her earlier this year at Indian Wells — wasn’t something she expected.
But at this point, she’s one of the few who feels that way. Maybe if she wins Saturday, she’ll silence that doubt for good.