NO NO NO.
The game was not going to escape her. The set was not going to escape her. The moment was not to be missed.
Coco Gauff had used her range and speed to catch a shot from Zhang Shuai and return it with her backhand late in the second set of their fourth-round match on Sunday at Arthur Ashe Stadium. Zhang responded with a volley forehand into the net. He fell suddenly.
As the cheers of a raucous crowd swirled around her, Gauff looked toward her coaches and supporters and waved her right index finger in a classic Dikembe Mutombo move.
NO NO NO. They wouldn’t stop her.
To make her point later, the 18-year-old Floridian copied a move popularized by the rap/hip-hop duo City Girls of JT and Yung Miami, sweeping her long-nailed fingers down the front of her neck. It wasn’t a cut of the throat, he said afterwards, but a way of saying period, the conversation is over.
Four points later, the debate ended when Zhang hit a backhand. Gauff was a 7-5, 7-5 winner and into the US Open quarter-finals for the first time, confirming her surprise runner-up finish at the French Open three months ago.
The one-time prodigy who reached the round of 16 at Wimbledon three years ago has grown into a thoughtful young woman who is not above laughing at the old-time media members who had no idea about the City Girls or the ‘period’ gesture ». Gauff, who is also ranked No. 1 in the world in doubles but lost in the first round here to partner Jessica Pegula, has grown more confident in her extraordinary talent and more comfortable with her place on the court and in the world .
As a child she had a poster of Serena Williams on her bedroom wall. Now she is in a position to succeed Williams as one of the sport’s most prominent figures.
“I think that was the hope and I think he has the maturity and ability to do it,” ESPN commentator Pam Shriver said. “Being the face of tennis in the same sense as Serena is so difficult, following someone who has won 23 majors. And obviously it has to win one to really be that. But he has all the presence and then some, off the field. She’s a different personality than Serena, but she’s very similar in their fight, in their competitiveness.”
The crowd recognized it and chanted her name. He had to work hard to stay in the zone and avoid smiling because it was so surreal.
“I told my team after the game, for some reason I’m much more alive. I found, like, a composure,” said Gauff, who will face Caroline Garcia of France in a quarterfinal on Tuesday.
“When the time is right, sometimes I don’t even know what my reaction will be after I win a point. I wasn’t thinking about Mutombo when I did it. I feel like a wall out there, I was running so hard. It’s like, “You can’t pass me today.”
Gauff hasn’t dropped a set here, but had to break back twice on Sunday to keep it intact. Zhang had led 5-4 in the opening set, but Gauff held serve in the next game, won a break for a 6-5 lead and converted her second set. Zhang, the oldest woman in the fourth round here at 33, broke Gauff’s serve to take a 5-3 lead in the second set and had a set point in the ninth game before Gauff fought back to win the last four games.
“I think I’ve always fought for every point, but I think I do it in a smarter way,” he said. “I think that just comes from learning from the same mistake over and over and over again.”
Early success in tennis is no guarantee of long-term prosperity. Naomi Osaka, who won her first Grand Slam title at 20 and her fourth just months after turning 23, has suffered from depression and anxiety and has fallen to 44th in the rankings. Here he lost in the first round. Ashleigh Barty took a break from tennis in 2014 to clear her head and returned to win three Slam titles before unexpectedly retiring this year aged 25 while ranked No.1 in the world. The demands and pressure can be overwhelming.
What Gauff needs most, even more than she needs a stronger second serve and improved forehand hold, is room to breathe. She needs trusted people around her who work for her and don’t see her as a meal ticket.
It seems to be enjoying a steady state. She lives in Delray Beach, Fla., with her parents. Her father, Corey, played basketball at Georgia State and her mother, Candi, competed in track and field at Florida State. He has two younger brothers. He is represented by the agency co-founded by Roger Federer, Team 8.
“She’s so thoughtful for someone so young, and I think that’s a credit to her parents and her family life,” Shriver said. “She just feels like she has such a solid anchor across generations of her family, her siblings, her team.”
Gauff said she couldn’t speak for other players, but said her family has never burdened her. “I think I definitely felt the pressure. I definitely felt the expectations,” he said. “But I also think about what’s in my head, when I step on the pitch I feel like it all goes away. I’m just lucky to be able to find that mindset.
“Hopefully I can stay in that mindset, but I can’t talk about the future.”
Is this future bright? Yes Yes Yes.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.