Coco Gauff's run at the Australian Open ended in the semi-finals on Thursday as the 19-year-old US Open champion faced an opponent who had proven too much for everyone at Melbourne Park over the past two years.
Aryna Sabalenka, the hard-hitting defending champion from Belarus who fell to Gauff and 24,000 adoring fans in the US Open final in September, experienced many shaky moments in the Rod Laver Arena. But Sabalenka played her best tennis in the most important moments, defeating Gauff in the first set tiebreak and then losing again in the second set, winning 7-6(2), 6-4 and reaching her third Grand Slam final.
Gauff entered the game with her worst performance in a long time, an error-filled win with her so-called “C-Game” in the quarterfinals against Marta Kostyuk of Ukraine. For this model, she switched from her technicolor amber skirt and top and shoes to a more muted navy blue. A different look and, she hoped, a different kind of performance.
It was and it wasn't – it was better, but not good enough, especially her serve. Gauff double-faulted eight times, a throwback to her early years on the tour. Her second serves were often soft and short, allowing Sabalenka to jump up the court and score victories past her opponent.
“I hit it right on her forehand so she knew where it was going every time,” Gauff said.
And yet, on a night when both players, especially Gauff, were far from their best, the American star had her chances. She saved a set point in the first set and stormed back from 5-2 down to win the set, coming within two points of winning it.
And then, after nearly five games, punctuated by forehands pounding into the net and long backhands, Sabalenka came to life, her shots rocketing to the back of the court and sending Gauff to his knees to retrieve them.
It looked like Sabalenka had wasted her chance to take an early lead in the game after blowing a 5-2 lead. Now she was in the lead again at the end of the first set and this time she didn't miss it and played an almost flawless tiebreaker. She finished the game with a great serve that Gauff reached out to throw back but could only watch as it landed a foot short of the court.
Sabalenka had not lost a set at the start of this match and had been simply unplayable for most of her opponents, her matches sometimes being over in less than an hour. The way she played, she was the only player who could beat them. With Gauff hanging on for life in the second set and facing no setbacks in so many of her service games, the only question was whether Sabalenka would break just before the finish, as she had so often in the past. That's what happened against Gauff in that US Open final, the kind of raw recent memory that can eat away at a player.
Sabalenka smiles after her win (Martin Keep/AFP via Getty Images)
She didn't crack. Once again, with Gauff about to take the lead late in the second round, Sabalenka stormed back, saved her own serve at 3-4 and broke Gauff in the next game, doing what she had done all night – hitting the second softball back serves and forehands to corners that even Gauff couldn't follow.
Another big, irrevocable serve and Gauff was out, her sweeping backhand falling into the net.
“I was definitely able to concentrate,” Sabalenka said.
When I saw Gauff shoot over the net in a large stadium on another of the sport's biggest stages, it didn't trigger any evil thoughts. The US Open, she said, was a pretty good tournament for her, a Grand Slam final she could be proud of.
“For me it’s not a bad memory,” Sabalenka said.
The loss will undoubtedly hurt Gauff. She loves competition and hates losing. She had won 12 Grand Slam matches in a row. After years of trying to fulfill all the promises that so many had predicted for her, she won her home Grand Slam tournament and met the deadline she had set for herself to win before her 20th birthday achieve, undercut by seven months.
Before this win, she might be despondent after losing at Grand Slams. After that loss, Gauff giggled during her postgame press conference, sometimes making fun of herself and joking that she didn't want to explain her game plan because it didn't work that well.
“I'm disappointed because I felt good on the pitch,” she said. “Ultimately she was the better player. She played these points better. I feel like I still have a lot to improve on.”
Gauff can be hard on herself, but she recently saw a statistic that said she had a similar number of Grand Slam wins as a teenager to Serena Williams and Jennifer Capriati, both of whom had pretty good careers.
“I’m on the right track,” she said. “I just need to remember the journey and not so much the moment.”
Coming to Australia she had every reason to believe she had as good a chance as anyone of winning another victory. In her first tournament of the year, she defended her title at the ASB Classic in New Zealand.
She arrived in Melbourne and began to coast through her opponents, but did so under the radar. She played her early afternoon games in a half-empty Rod Laver Arena to accommodate the U.S. television audience. Her doubles partner Jessica Pegula decided not to play in the doubles after losing early in the singles. That gave Gauff enough time to refill. She went to the cinema. She read. She practiced, sometimes after her one-sided games. She kept winning.
In the quarterfinals against Marta Kostyuk, her game all but disappeared. She found it difficult to land her forehand and serve with confidence, but her perseverance and never-give-up mentality got her through.
She knew she wouldn't get away with that against Sabalenka. She winced and doubled over as she missed one serve after another.
“I wish I could have pitched better,” she said afterwards. “If you make a double mistake, you have to choose the second mistake.”
And yet it still came down to a few points, and as frustrating as it was for her when she couldn't do her best when she had to, she still found herself in certain moments, in the middle of the hottest arguments, and thought: “That is fun.”
As she left the court, her coach, Brad Gilbert, said the sun would come up tomorrow and she would get another chance to have a good day.
“I don’t know tomorrow,” said Gauff. “I'll try to go to the movies or something, be proud of me.”
(Top photo: Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP via Getty Images)