In the opening set of her third-round match against Elise Mertens on Friday, Coco Gauff looked fallible, frustrated and like she would be finished early, nothing like she had earlier this week at the U.S. Open.
Mertens, a 27-year-old Belgian, was playing loosely and aggressively, while Gauff, the 19-year-old American superstar, made error after error on just about every stroke. Gauff, usually possessing preternatural emotional maturity and composure, showed frustration throughout the early part of the match, uncharacteristically yelling out angrily after a double fault in the first set, which Mertens won 6-3.
It was suddenly easy to imagine Gauff’s run at the U.S. Open coming to an end on this cool New York evening.
Instead, Gauff turned it on and turned the emotional tables on Mertens. She won the second set less shakily, 6-3, and by the third, it was clear how badly Gauff wanted to win, as she used her immense foot speed to track down every ball, forcing Mertens into errors. Gauff won the third set cleanly, 6-0.
“The energy today definitely helped me, I felt you guys, I was playing every point my hardest,” Gauff said in her on-court interview. “When you lose the first set, you know that you have to show that you left all that energy in the first set and you’re ready to play.”
Gauff said that the “three setters show everybody else that I’m not going down without a fight.”
The early night match at Arthur Ashe Stadium drew a packed house that included the pop star Justin Bieber and his wife, the model and influencer Hailey Bieber, along with the Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour and the actress Katie Holmes.
The crowd was lopsided for Gauff from the night’s opening serve. Cheers of “Let’s go, Coco” and “Finish her, Coco” boomed throughout the stadium. The crowd jumped to its feet and fans high-fived each other at every positive turn for Gauff, though it was slow going until the second set.
Friday marked the third time the two had faced each other, with Gauff winning their last encounter in straight sets at the 2022 French Open. Gauff acknowledged in an interview before the match that she had won their last encounter handily, and wasn’t expecting to win so easily this time around.
Not long into the first set it seemed almost certain that Mertens would advance to the round of 16. Then everything flipped.
Gauff lost the first game of the second set, then fought hard to hold serve after six deuce points. On the sixth, she hit an ace down the middle and screamed “Come on!” It was her fourth ace of the match at that point. As the match wore on she crushed a risky overhead and when Mertens hit a loopy cross-court backhand, Gauff pounced, sprinting to the ball and then jumping in the air to crush it down the line with her forehand.
When she clinched the second set with a backhand winner down the line, she pumped a fist, and extended her arms, beckoning the crowd to cheer for her. Mertens looked hopeless.
Gauff started the third set energetically as Mertens’s game completely fell apart. She netted forehands, hit backhands long and double-faulted.
Gauff will next play Caroline Wozniacki, who recently returned to tennis after retiring three years ago to focus on building a family. Wozniacki has had a stellar start to the tournament, defeating Petra Kvitova in straight sets in her first-round match and Jennifer Brady in three sets, after being down a set, in her second-round match.
Gauff said she told Wozniacki when she retired that she wished she’d had a chance to play her. “That wish came true,” she said. “Playing a legend like her is really exciting and I’m not going to take the moment for granted.”
Gauff, who had looked like a veteran as she steamrollered Mertens in the third set, quickly reminded us she is still a teenager.
In an interview on the ESPN desk inside Ashe after the match, Gauff said she noticed Bieber in the crowd during the second set.
“Oh yeah, I definitely saw who was there,” she said with a giggle. “I thought I cannot lose in front of Justin Bieber. I didn’t lose a game after I saw that. I got a little tight when I first saw him, then I remembered President Obama and Michelle Obama were at my first round match.”
Lola Fadulu is a general assignment reporter on the Metro desk of The Times. She was part of a team that was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 2023 for coverage of New York City’s deadliest fire in decades. More about Lola Fadulu
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