Coco Gauff’s Australian Open run came to an end in the semifinals on Thursday, as the 19-year-old US Open champion faced an opponent who had proven too much for everyone at Melbourne Park in the past two years.
Aryna Sabalenka, the hard-hitting defending champion from Belarus who collapsed in front of Gauff and 24,000 in the US Open final last September, has had plenty of shaky moments on Rod Laver Arena. But Sabalenka played her best in the moments that mattered most, beating Gauff in a first-set tiebreak, then pulling away again in the second to win 7-6 (2), 6-4 and reach her third Grand Slam final. .
Gauff entered the match coming off her worst performance in a long time, an error-strewn win in what she called her “C Game” in the quarterfinals against Marta Kostyuk of Ukraine. To this end, she changes her amber skirt, top, and technicolor shoes to a more subdued navy. A different look, and you hope there’s a different kind of performance.
It was like that and it wasn’t like that, it was better, but it wasn’t good enough, especially her serve. Gauff double-faulted eight times, a throwback to her prime years on the tour. Her second serve was often soft and short, allowing Sabalenka to jump up the court and hit winners past her opponent.
“I was hitting her straight with my forehand, so she knew where to go every time,” Gauff said.
However, on a night when both players, especially Gauff, were far from their best, the American star had her chances. In the first set, she saved a set point and came back from a 5-2 deficit to serve for the set and was two points away from winning it.
After nearly five games of net forehands and long backhands, Sabalenka came alive, her shots sweeping down the back of the court and sending Gauff to her knees to retrieve them.
It seemed that Sabalenka had squandered her chance to take an early lead in this match after squandering a 5-2 lead. Now she had the advantage again at the end of the first set, and this time, she couldn’t overcome it, playing a flawless tiebreaker. She finished it off with a powerful serve that Gauff extended to return the ball back but could only watch as the ball fell a foot from the court.
Sabalenka had never dropped a set before this match, and for most of her opponents, she was completely unplayable, with her matches sometimes ending in less than an hour. The way she was playing, the only player who was going to beat her was herself. With Gauff holding on for dear life in the second set, avoiding falling behind on several service games, the only question was whether Sabalenka would collapse towards the end as she has done so many times in the past. It happened against Gauff in the US Open final, and it’s the kind of raw recent memory that can eat away at a player.
It didn’t crack. Once again, with Gauff on the verge of taking the lead late in the second, Sabalenka came back strong and saved from 3-4, then broke Gauff in the next game by doing what she had done all night – hitting a soft second volley. Serves and forehands to angles that even Gauff can’t follow.
Another big, unanswerable serve and Gauff went wide and a powerful backhand volleyed into the net.
“I was able to stay focused no matter what,” Sabalenka said.
Seeing Gauff across the net on a big court on one of the biggest stages in sports didn’t spark any ill thoughts. She said the US Open was a very good tournament for her, a Grand Slam final, something she should be proud of.
“It’s not a bad memory for me,” Sabalenka said.
The loss will undoubtedly sting Gauff. You love competition and hate losing. She has won 12 Grand Slam matches in a row. After years of trying to live up to the promise that many had come to expect from her, she won her major championship on home soil and beat her own self-imposed deadline to win a title seven months before her 20th birthday.
Before this win, she may have been feeling despondent after her Grand Slam loss. After that loss, Gauff laughed during her post-match press conference, making fun of herself at some points, joking that she didn’t want to explain her game plan because it didn’t work well.
“I’m disappointed because I felt good when I went out on the field,” she said. “At the end of the day, she was the better player. She played those points better. I feel like I have a lot to improve on.”
Gauff can be hard on herself, but she recently saw a statistic that said she had the same number of Grand Slam wins as a teenager as Serena Williams and Jennifer Capriati, both of whom had good careers.
“I’m in the right direction,” she said. “I just have to remind myself of the journey, not the moment.”
When she arrived in Australia, she had every reason to believe she had as good a chance as anyone of winning another award. In her first tournament of the year, she defended her title at the ASB Classic in New Zealand.
She arrived in Melbourne and started taking on opponents but was doing so under the radar. Its matches were played in the early afternoon, in a half-empty Rod Laver Arena, to accommodate an American television audience. Her doubles partner, Jessica Pegula, decided not to play doubles after losing early in singles. That gave Goff plenty of time to fill the void. I went to the movies. she is reading. She would train, sometimes after her lopsided matches. I kept winning.
In the quarterfinals against Marta Kostyuk, her game almost disappeared. She struggled to land her forehand and serve with confidence, but her stamina and never-stop mentality helped her come through.
She knew she wouldn’t get away with it against Sabalenka. She winced and doubled over as she missed serve after serve.
“I wish I could provide better service,” she said afterward. “She goes for the second when she double-faults.”
However, it came to a few points, and as frustrating as it was for her not to play near her best when she had to, she found herself at certain moments, in the middle of the most important exchanges, thinking “This is fun.”
As she walked off the field, her coach, Brad Gilbert, told her the sun would come out tomorrow and she would get another chance to have a good day.
“Tomorrow, I don’t know,” Goff said. “I’ll try to go to the movies or something, I’ll be proud of myself.”
(Top image: Lillian Swanrumfa/AFP via Getty Images)
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