Wimbledon swooned when, in 2019, Coco Gauff, emerged from the qualifying to beat Venus Williams en route to a fourth round showing when she had barely turned fifteen.
It turned out, however, that we were not witnessing a Martina Hingis-type wonderkid, and not even an Emma Raducanu, soaring from nowhere to claim one of the sport’s biggest prizes.
Two years on from Raducanu, Gauff is finally on the cusp of fulfilling great expectations. She is into Thursday’s last four of the US Open, where homegrown success is an ingredient that has been in short supply.
That she is accompanied by 20 year-old Ben Shelton into the closing stages sees the event continuing to resonate with the wider American sporting public, even in a week when attention is focused on the eagerly-awaited start of the NFL season.
They are part of what feels like the start of tennis’s regeneration process amid the recent or imminent departures of marquee names. This being such an important market, the importance of having at least two bright young athletes from the US as a significant part of that can hardly be understated.
Coco Gauff defeated Jelena Ostapenko, of Latvia, in the quarterfinals on Day 9 of the US Open
Gauff, 19, will next face No. 10 seed Karolina Muchova, who was the finalist of the French Open
Gauff attended the 50th anniversary of the WTA last month, around the start of the US Open
That brings with it a pressure, too. For all her sunny disposition Gauff could be excused for sensing a burden as she prepares to take on number ten seed Karolina Muchova, the daughter of a Czech football manager but another product of their country’s much-vaunted women’s tennis system.
When Gauff was bundled out of this summer’s first round on the opening day at Wimbledon, there was a sense of resignation that the substance was still some way behind her reputation.
What has happened since is a sequence of sixteen wins from 17 matches. The fascination with her progress has been added to by the fact that this coincides with the hiring of renowned coach Brad Gilbert to her team, whose previous client list has included Andre Agassi and Andy Murray.
Few coaches have as high a profile as the quirky Gilbert, a master tactician who wrote the seminal coaching manual Winning Ugly and has been a longstanding analyst on ESPN’s coverage of the sport.
Now that courtside boxes have become mic’ed up, his stream-of-consciousness instructions to her mid-match (a practice allowed under trial new rules) have become an intriguing sideshow.
As she struggled against veteran Caroline Wozniacki she told him to stop talking. Undeterred, Gilbert suggested she started giving the ball more air, only for her to completely ignore his advice and start drilling the ball flat. This led to her reeling off the last six games to make the quarter finals, the subject of much amusement.
Gauff hired Brad Gilbert after her early exit from Wimbledon & has won 16 of her last 17 games
Gauff lost in straight sets at the first round of Wimbledon in July to compatriot Sofia Kenin
Still, something appears to have clicked for someone supremely athletic, whose best prior performance was reaching the French Open final last year (in which she was hammered by Iga Swiatek).
Gauff is long used to the attention, but handles it with aplomb: ‘When I put my scale on to other people, I don’t view it as big, like some of the celebrity kids who have paparazzi everywhere, that’s crazy,’ she said ahead of Thursday’s meeting.
‘I used to think negative things, like why is there so much pressure, why is this so hard, blah, blah, blah. I realize it’s pressure but there are people struggling to feed their families, people who don’t know where their next meal is going to come from, people who have to pay their bills.
‘That’s real pressure, real hardship, real life. I’m in a very privileged position.’
It is this remarkably high emotional IQ which makes Gauff stand out. You might not expect from someone who was hot-housed and home-schooled from the age of eight, but it permeates her every articulate word in public.
The odd thing is that she has not played especially well in this event so far. She does not have the obligatory killer forehand among top players and has lost fifty per cent of baseline rallies in the tournament to date. The one area that has really stood out at Flushing Meadows is her return of serve, and that will need to work again against this year’s narrowly-beaten French Open finalist, who Gauff defeated recently in Cincinnati.
Shelton will face Novak Djokovic in Friday’s men’s semi-finals after a late night four set win over fellow American Frances Tiafoe in punishing humidity. Together with Gauff it feels like they have the future of American tennis in their hands.