After earning a place in her first U.S. Open final, Coco Gauff told the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd, “Job’s not done yet.”
Gauff was referencing Kobe Bryant, who, when asked by a reporter why he seemed unhappy after winning Game 2 of the 2009 NBA Finals, famously responded: “What’s there to be happy about? Job’s not finished.”
Gauff knew her goal of winning her first major title at her home Grand Slam had one more huge obstacle: Aryna Sabalenka, the big-hitter from Belarus who on Monday will ascend to No. 1 in the world.
In Saturday’s final before a sold-out crowd of some 24,000 in Ashe Stadium, including Kevin Durant, Nicole Kidman and John McEnroe, Gauff showed the Mamba Mentality when she came back to beat Sabalenka, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2 to win her first major title. At 19, she is the youngest U.S. Open champion since a 17-year-old Serena Williams won it in 1999. Serena, Gauff’s idol, retired after this tournament a year ago.
As she held up the winner’s check for $3 million, she thanked Billie Jean King for “fighting for this.”
Gauff shouted out the haters who she said doubted her even after she won U.S. Open warm-up tournaments in Washington, D.C. and Cincinnati.
“To those who thought they were putting water on my fire, you were really adding gas to it,” Gauff said. “Now I’m really burning so bright right now.”
Serving at 5-2, 40-0 in the third, she won it with a backhand pass and then fell to the Arthur Ashe court, embraced Sabalenka at the net and began crying as she let the crowd bathe her in applause. Soon she found her parents in the stands and hugged them, along with other friends and family members. She said it was the first time she had ever seen her father Corey cry. “He thinks he’s so hard,” she joked.
Gauff’s gutsy comeback would have made Kobe proud.
She capped a brilliant summer after losing in the first round of Wimbledon, winning three hardcourt titles, including the Open, and improved to 18-1 since the Wimbledon loss.
Gauff will become the top-ranked American woman in singles on Monday at No. 3 in the world and will also share the world No. 1 doubles ranking with Jessica Pegula.
Among those shouting out her win was former President Obama.
After dropping the first set, Gauff became more aggressive, particularly with her forehand, and came forward more. She lost a point at 4-1, 30-all in the second only when Sabalenka retreated to the baseline to retrieve a lob and hit a lob winner over Gauff. But the point underscored Gauff’s more aggressive style.
In the decisive third set, Gauff earned a break for 1-0 right off the bat with an overhead smash winner on her second break point, triggering a massive roar from the crowd. When she held with a 106-mph service winner for 2-0, the crowd shouted approval again.
“It’s tough to be on the other side of an American when you’re playing in front of this crowd,” 18-time major winner Chrissie Evert said on ESPN.
Gauff raced out to a 4-0 lead in the third and was in full command.
“She’s on a roll, she found her game,” Evert said. “She found her A game and look how good she is.”
After getting broken for 4-2, Gauff broke back immediately, ending a long baseline exchange with a forehand winner for 5-2 that caused the Ashe crowd to explode with noise.
“I don’t know, I just knew that if I didn’t give it my all I had no shot at winning,” Gauff said of the turnaround. “Aryna is an incredible, incredible player. Congratulations on the No. 1 ranking.”
Gauff has now matched her idol Serena by winning the Open as a teenager.
During her legendary career that ended at this tournament a year ago, Serena won 23 Grand Slam titles and established herself in the minds of many as the GOAT of women’s tennis.
Still, Coco is not Serena — nobody is. And nobody knows that better than Gauff.
“Serena’s Serena — she’s the GOAT,” the always thoughtful Gauff told ESPN after her semifinal win Thursday. “I mean, I would hope to do half of what [Williams] does, but I’m not going to compare myself to her,” Gauff added.
“She’s someone I looked up to, but to be in the same stat-line as her means a lot to me. She’s my idol. I think the only regret that I’ll have for the rest of my life is not being able to play her,” she said. “There were so many tournaments where if we won an extra round or didn’t lose, I would’ve played her. But I’m still happy to just be the product of her legacy and be out here.”
Gauff is only 19 and will have have plenty more opportunities to win majors, but it’s a crowded field at the top of the women’s game and Sabalenka, who won the Australian Open, and Iga Swiatek, who won the French for her fourth major, aren’t going anywhere.
“As always, we’ll come back stronger,” an emotional Sabalenka said on court.
Naomi Osaka — winner of four majors herself — is eyeing a comeback in 2024 after recently becoming a mother. Other moms like former Australian Open champ and world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki and three-time major champ Angie Kerber are either back on the tour or planning to come back.
Gauff will have to avoid the pitfalls and injuries of one-hit wonders like former U.S. Open champions Emma Raducanu (2021), Bianca Andreescu (2019) and Sloane Stephens (2017).
“At the end of the day, everyone has their own path,” said Wozniacki, who lost to Gauff in three sets in the fourth round. “Obviously Coco is doing well. She came on tour very young. There were a lot of eyes on her immediately. With that comes expectation, everything else.
“But she has a great team around her. She is a hard worker. She’s a great athlete. When her time comes, it’s going to come,” Wozniacki said.
Coco Gauff’s time did come on Saturday, and she used Kobe’s mentality to help make it happen.
“That’s the mentality that I have,” she said ahead of the final. “I’m trying to enjoy the moment but also knowing I still have more work to do.
“Yes, the final is an incredible achievement but it’s something that I’m not satisfied with yet.”