Tennis: Gauff carrying Williams legacy into US Open final

AFP , Friday 8 Sep 2023

Serena Williams may be one year into her retirement but American teenager Coco Gauff will be proudly carrying the tennis icon's legacy when she takes on Aryna Sabalenka in the US Open final on Saturday.

Coco Gauff
USA's Coco Gauff celebrates her victory over Czech Republic's Karolina Muchova during the US Open tennis tournament women's singles semi-finals match at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York City, on September 7, 2023. Photo: AFP


Twelve months after Williams signed off from a 27-year professional career that yielded 23 Grand Slam singles titles, the 19-year-old Gauff is on the threshold of winning her first major championship.

During her march to Saturday's final, Gauff has parried away suggestions that she is the "new Serena Williams", making it clear that her idol's achievements may never be matched.

"Serena is Serena," Gauff said following her semi-final victory over Karolina Muchova on Thursday. "She's the GOAT (Greatest of all time). I'd hope to do half of what she did."

But the teenager makes no secret of the fact that Williams was instrumental in inspiring her to pick up a racquet and pursue her dreams.

"I think really just the way she was able to transform a sport that's predominantly white," Gauff has said. "That's something that as a little girl — and even now — meant a lot to me.

"Growing up, before I was born, there wasn't many (Black tennis players) before Serena came along. There was not really an icon of the sport that looked like me.

"So growing up, I never thought that I was different because the No. 1 player in the world was somebody who looked like me."

Gauff, who burst into the wider world's tennis consciousness with a memorable run to the fourth round of Wimbledon in 2019 when she was just 15, has quickly forged her own identity.

Despite her array of talents, though, the teenager admits to sometimes suffering from "impostor syndrome", questioning whether she really belongs at the top table of women's tennis.

She has grappled with those thoughts even after ticking off some notable milestones this season, which included titles in Washington and Cincinnati, and a first ever victory over world number one Iga Swiatek after defeats in their seven previous meetings.

Learning to smile

"I think it's still a part of me," Gauff admitted on Thursday. "I think it's something I'm doing better with, definitely.

"Even after (winning in) Washington, you know, I still was like, 'Well, you know, I beat some good people but maybe I caught them on off days!'"

Gauff says she is slowly learning to "give myself more credit."

"I've been trying to speak more positively of myself and actually telling myself that I’m a great player."

Her shift in mindset is at least partially attributable to the arrival of Brad Gilbert in her coaching set-up in July.

Gilbert was brought in after the nadir of a first-round exit at Wimbledon, which left Gauff wondering whether the upcoming hardcourt season would be a write-off.

Gauff says Gilbert's first piece of advice to her was simply to learn to enjoy herself.

"The first meeting that I had with Brad before he started coaching with me, one of the first things he said is 'You need to smile more'," Gauff revealed.

"When he said that I was a little bit surprised. I started to think and I was like, 'Yeah, I do.' That's something I'm trying to work on and continuing to do, and obviously I think it's helping my results."

Whether Gauff is smiling after Saturday's final at the Arthur Ashe Stadium will depend on whether she can get the better of her formidable opponent from Belarus.

Sabalenka, who will replace Swiatek as world number one in the next set of rankings, has enjoyed a breakthrough season this year and could pick up her second Grand Slam title on Saturday to bookend her Australian Open crown won in January.

Last year, the hard-hitting second seed departed the US Open in the semi-finals, distraught after losing to Swiatek in three sets after leading 4-2 in the final set.

Yet her improved mental resilience was on full display on Thursday as she battled through a nerve-shredding encounter with 17th seed Madison Keys 0-6, 7-6 (7/1), 7-6 (10/5) to reach the final.

Sabalenka, who says that she is "her own psychologist", is fully prepared for what awaits her on Saturday, with the 23,000-capacity Arthur Ashe crowd baying for Gauff.

"She's an unbelievable player," said Sabalenka. "The crowd will be supporting her a lot. I will do everything I can.

"I'll be fighting for every point and I will do my best."

(For more sports news and updates, follow Ahram Online Sports on Twitter at @AO_Sports and on Facebook at AhramOnlineSports.)

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