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Coco Gauff, of the United States, poses for photographs after defeating Aryna Sabalenka, of Belarus, at the women's singles final of the U.S. Open tennis championships, Sept. 9, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

By Howard Fendrich,
AP Tennis Writer

NEW YORK (AP) — This was what so many folks figured Coco Gauff would do at some point. Didn’t matter how young she was. Didn’t matter whether there were setbacks along the way. Those outsized expectations did not make the task of becoming a Grand Slam champion as a teenager any easier — especially when that chorus was accompanied by voices of others who doubted her.

She did it, though. At age 19. At the U.S. Open, where she used to come as a kid with her parents to watch her idols, Serena and Venus Williams, compete.

Gauff set aside a so-so start and surged to her first major championship by coming back to defeat Aryna Sabalenka 2-6, 6-3, 6-2 in the U.S. Open final on Sept. 9, delighting a raucous crowd that was loud from start to finish.

When it was over, when she had shed tears of joy, when she had hugged Mom and Dad as they cried, too, Gauff first thanked them, and her grandparents, and her brothers, one of whom failed to answer a FaceTime call from her right after the match. And then Gauff took the microphone to address anyone who might have questioned if this day would arrive.

“Thank you to the people who didn’t believe in me. Like a month ago, I won a (tour) title and people said I would stop at that. Two weeks ago I won a (tour) title and people were saying that was the biggest it was going to get. So three weeks later, I’m here with this trophy right now,” said Gauff, who is on a career-best 12-match winning streak. “Tried my best to carry this with grace, and I’ve been doing my best, so honestly, to those who thought they were putting water in my fire: You were really adding gas to it and now it’s really burning so bright right now.”

Gauff, who is from Florida, is the first American teenager to win the country’s major tennis tournament since Serena Williams in 1999. If last year’s U.S. Open was all about saying goodbye to Williams as she competed for the final time, this year’s two weeks in New York turned into a “Welcome to the big time!” moment for Gauff. Famous people were coming to watch her play each time, and one, former President Barack Obama, sent a congratulatory note via social media on Sept. 9.

Gauff burst onto the scene at 15 by becoming the youngest qualifier in Wimbledon history and making it to the fourth round in her Grand Slam debut in 2019. She reached her initial major final at last year’s French Open, finishing as the runner-up. What appeared to be a step back came this July at the All England Club, where she exited in the first round.

Since then, she has won 18 of 19 contests while working with a new coaching pair of Brad Gilbert and Pere Riba.

The No. 6-seeded Gauff did it Sept. 9 by withstanding the power displayed by Sabalenka on nearly every swing of her racket, eventually getting accustomed to it and managing to get back shot after shot. 

Gauff broke to begin the third set on one such point, tracking down every ball hit her way until eventually smacking a putaway volley that she punctuated with a fist pump and a scream of “Come on!”

Soon it was 4-0 in that set for Gauff. At 4-1, Sabalenka took a medical timeout while her left leg was massaged. Gauff stayed sharp during the break — it lasted a handful of minutes, not the 50 during a climate protest in the semifinals — by practicing some serves.

When they resumed, Sabalenka broke to get within 4-2. But Gauff broke right back, and soon was serving out the victory, then dropping onto her back on the court. She soon climbed into the stands to find her parents.

“You did it!” Gauff’s mom told her, both in tears.

Soon Gauff was accepting her trophy — “It’s not heavy,” she said — and an envelope with the champion’s $3 million paycheck, the same amount Novak Djokovic or Daniil Medvedev will get after the men’s final Sept. 10. This is the 50th anniversary of when the 1973 U.S. Open became the first major sports event to pay women and men equal prize money; the person who led that effort, Hall of Fame player and rights advocate Billie Jean King, was on hand for Gauff’s victory.

“Thank you, Billie,” Gauff said, “for fighting for this.”

Sabalenka came in 23-2 at majors in 2023, including a title at the Australian Open. The 25-year-old from Belarus already was assured of rising from No. 2 to No. 1 in the rankings next week (Gauff will be No. 3 in singles, No. 1 in doubles).

But Sabalenka was reduced to the role of foil by the fans in 23,000-capacity Arthur Ashe Stadium. Setting the tone, Gauff’s pre-match TV interview, shown on the video screens in the arena, was drowned out by the sound of applause and yells reverberating off the closed retractable roof.

Winners by Gauff were celebrated as if the match were over. So were Sabalenka’s miscues. When Sabalenka heard cheers during the post-match ceremony, she joked: “You guys could have supported (me) like this during the match.”

By the end, she had 46 unforced errors, Gauff 19. Here’s another way to view it: Gauff only needed 13 winners to accumulate 83 points.

When Sabalenka has everything calibrated just right, it’s difficult for any foe to handle it — even someone as speedy, smart and instinctive as Gauff, whose get-to-every-ball court coverage kept points alive.

“I just knew that if I didn’t give it my all,” Gauff said, “I had no shot at winning.”

When Sabalenka was on-target early, she dominated. During a four-game run to close the opening set, one thrilling point had the audience making noise before it was over. Gauff scrambled to get Sabalenka’s strokes back, including somehow deflecting a booming overhead, before a second, unreachable overhead bounced into the seats.

Sabalenka raised her left hand and wagged her fingers, telling spectators to give her some love.

But soon, Gauff was playing better, Sabalenka was off-target more, and the love was being showered only on one of them, the sport’s newest Grand Slam champion.

“Many more to come,” Sabalenka said, “I’m pretty sure.”

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AP tennis coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/tennis