At the U.S. Open, Coco Gauff and Company Stake Their Claim

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Led by Coco Gauff and a cast of charismatic upstarts, tennis hit a sweet spot at this year’s U.S. Open with a diverse blend of old and right now, signaling the game is freshly and firmly energized as it enters a new era.

No Serena Williams. No Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal.

No problem.

True enough, Novak Djokovic, who is going for the 24th major title of his career on Sunday, in the men’s singles final against Daniil Medvedev, is still performing his magic act. But conventional thinking had contended tennis would be in trouble when the legendary champions who have propped up the professional game for roughly the past two decades began leaving the game en masse.

At this tournament, the commanding arrival of Gauff, who won the women’s singles title Saturday evening, along with memorable performances by Ben Shelton and Frances Tiafoe, proved that thinking wrong.

At the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, a quartet of legends no longer stifled the game, overshadowing the sometimes stalled forward motion of the young players coming behind. You could feel it on the grounds, which filled with so many spectators that it often appeared there was no space to move without bruising a shoulder. This year’s event set attendance records nearly every day.

“It’s incredibly invigorating to see a shift in personalities,” said Kate Koza, a Brooklynite and regular at the Open since 2016, echoing a sentiment I heard repeatedly during the event’s two-week run. “We’re not just seeing the same faces with the same mythical back story.”

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Tennis is changing, and no player embodied that more than the 19-year-old Gauff, who, ever since she burst onto the scene four years ago with a first-round win over Venus Williams at Wimbledon, appeared destined for this moment.

In these two weeks at the U.S. Open, she grew entirely into herself. Her dutiful parents — ever at her side all these years on tour, with her father as coach — gave her extra freedom and fell just enough into the background. Gauff thrived, making clear that she is now her own woman. Think of how she demanded that her new coach, Brad Gilbert, tone down his chatterbox instructions during her fourth-round struggle against Caroline Wozniacki.

“Please stop,” she instructed, adding a firmness that showed she was the one to dictate her action at this event. “Stop talking!”

At Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens, she commanded the stage.

She leaned into her speed and improving forehand to win four three-set showdowns during the tournament and played like a wily veteran in the most heart-pounding moments.

She gained energy from the crowd — look, there’s Barack and Michelle Obama, and over there, Justin Bieber. “I saw pretty much every celebrity they showed on that screen,” she said, adding that she embraced the moment and vowed “to win in front of these people.”

As she scorched a final passing shot past Aryna Sabalenka to take the title, falling to her back and then kneeling to soak in the moment through tears, Gauff claimed eternal space in the collective memory. Watching from a dozen rows back from center court, I felt goose bumps and shivers. The massive stadium shook and swayed, most of the 23,000 fans inside the stadium on their feet, cheering and chanting. They wanted this moment, this champion, this fresh start.

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Since Serena Williams won her first major title as a 17-year-old at the 1999 U.S. Open, the Open has had other Black champions. Her sister Venus in 2000 and 2001. Sloane Stephens in 2017. Naomi Osaka, who is Black and Asian, in 2018 and 2020.

But Gauff is the first in a new era — a new champion in a new tennis world — one without the shadow of Serena. The torch has been passed.

Sure, most fans hated to see the men’s No. 1 seed, Carlos Alcaraz, the Wimbledon champion, go down in an upset to Daniil Medvedev in the semifinals. The dream matchup had been a championship between Alcaraz and Djokovic, possessors of the hottest rivalry in men’s tennis.

But if we’ve learned anything from the lockdown grip four genius players have had on tennis, it is that the expected course eventually becomes monotonous. Look at it this way: If Djokovic and Alcaraz finally face each other at the U.S. Open, the fact that they were barely denied a Flushing Meadows duel in 2023 will make their matchup that much sweeter.

Last year’s U.S. Open, with its send-off celebration of Serena’s retirement and career, turned the page. This year’s tournament closed the book and put it back on the shelf.

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You could feel the exuberance in the air from the start, an energy that told a story: Djokovic remains — same as ever — but everyone else in the two fields seemed liberated by losing the shadow of Serena, Nadal and Federer.

The men’s quarterfinals featured not only Alcaraz but two resurgent Americans in their mid-20s, Taylor Fritz and Frances Tiafoe, a fan favorite for his willingness to connect with the crowd.

As if to herald the fact that Black players are a budding, booming force in both the men’s and women’s game, Tiafoe and Shelton became the first African American men to face each other in the final eight of a major championship.

That wasn’t the only notable footnote. The fast-rising Shelton, 20, was the youngest American to reach a U.S. Open final since 1992. He walloped Tiafoe to get to the semifinals, wowing crowds with 149-mile-per-hour serves and in-your-face competitiveness that showed he wouldn’t back away from any challenge — even if that challenge was Djokovic.

After beating Shelton in a hard-fought, straight-sets win to advance to the men’s final, Djokovic mimicked the celebratory gesture Shelton had flashed throughout the tournament after victory — an imaginary phone to the ear, which he then slammed down, as if to say, “Game, set, match, conversation over.”

The wise master remains, still willing to give an education to the young ones for a bit longer.

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