Summer of Coco Gauff reaches US Open semis fueled by 19-year-old star’s love of the game — and the moment

If 2019 featured the Wimbledon of Coco, this is the Summer of Coco.

Four years ago, Coco Gauff shot to prominence in tennis and beyond when, at 15 years old, she became the youngest Wimbledon qualifier ever, then went on to beat living legend Venus Williams in the first round and advance to the Round of 16.

On Tuesday, Gauff advanced to the semifinals of the US Open for the first time, making short work of Latvian Jelena Ostapenko 6-0, 6-2 in a match that took just over an hour.

Gauff will face Karolina Muchova on Thursday for the chance to go to her second Grand Slam final. Muchova, ranked No. 10 in the world, is a familiar opponent for Gauff, someone she played just a few weeks ago in Cincinnati.

Since a disappointing first-round exit at Wimbledon in early July, the now-19-year-old Gauff has been on a tear, winning 16 of 17 matches. That includes the championships at the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati and the D.C. Open in Washington. Gauff’s only loss in that stretch came in the quarterfinals of the Montreal Open to her doubles partner (and daughter of Buffalo Bills owners Terry and Kim), Jessica Pegula.

To advance to the Cincinnati final, Gauff defeated current world No. 1 Iga Swiatek in the semis, marking her first win over the Polish star in eight tries (including the 2022 French Open final). She beat Muchova in straight sets in the final, celebrating the biggest title of her career thus far with a pirouette at midcourt and a little milly rock as she walked back to her courtside chairs.

It sent her to Flushing Meadows on quite the high.

With her quarterfinal win over Ostapenko this week, Gauff became the first American teenager since Serena Williams to make it to the semis at the US Open. But it isn’t just the winning that makes Gauff endearing; it’s also her clear love of the game and the moment.

And we’re not the only ones: Former president and first lady Barack and Michelle Obama were on hand to watch Gauff’s opening match and met with her after. Her friend and Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler is a regular presence. Former NFL All-Pro Rob Gronkowski and pop star Justin Bieber and his wife, Hailey, have also taken in Gauff’s matches this tournament.

But she admitted Tuesday that her outward enjoyment and feeding off the energy of the crowd are new to her.

“Honestly, I wish I embraced the fun parts a little bit sooner,” she said. “The structure — not just the [WTA] Tour, but sports in general, especially individual sports — you don’t have the one teammate that is always making jokes or the one teammate that messes up at the wrong moment you can laugh at, and now I feel like I’m being all of those types of teammates for myself, and I’m enjoying it.

“I thought that to play and win, you had to be ultra-serious and ultra-focused, which, that is true, but you still have to enjoy it.”

Gauff is becoming a young woman in front of our eyes, with the poise she was lauded for years ago at Wimbledon now mixed with an element of fun, as well as the clarity of purpose to use her platform for far more than just extolling the virtues of a sport she began playing as a little girl and the opponents she faces.

Gauff comes by that last part honestly: Her maternal grandmother, Yvonne Lee Odom, was the first Black student to integrate what was then called Seacrest High School in Delray Beach, Florida, in 1961. The way Coco sees it, if her grandmother could endure the stares and having to use adult bathrooms out of fear that student bathrooms would be too dangerous (Miss Yvonne eventually convinced teachers to let her use the bathroom with her peers), she can speak up against injustice.

“I think she’s the sole — or one of the main reasons — why I use my platform the way that I do and why I feel so comfortable speaking out,” Gauff said Tuesday of her grandmother. “She had to deal with a lot of things, like racial injustice. Her leading the way she [does] and being so kind to everyone, regardless of their background, is something I take inspiration from.

“That’s why I always say I like to know everybody’s perspective, whether I agree or not. She always taught me to approach every situation with kindness and understanding, and I think for her to go through what she did during that time is something that, I think, what I do — putting out a tweet or saying a speech — is so easy compared to that. That’s why I have no problem doing the things that I do. She always reminds me that I’m a person first, instead of an athlete.”

A person who can take a big step toward her first Grand Slam singles title on Thursday, under the bright lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium, amazingly still a teenager, yet one of the veterans.

We’ll be waiting to see if there’s a pirouette and milly rock celebration at the end of the match, with the summer of Coco extending to Saturday afternoon for the women’s singles final.

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