They rolled out a red carpet at one end of Arthur Ashe Stadium and for a few minutes on opening night of this US Open, sport gave way to ceremony: New York mayor Eric Adams addressed the crowd, a nine-year-old child sang about stars and stripes. And then another young girl – barely double her age – emerged for the first leg of what is hoped might be her crowning fortnight.
No American woman has won here since 2017. None of the other 42 US players in the main singles draws faces the excitement and expectation swirling around Coco Gauff. But the 19-year-old landed in New York in the form of her life and with renewed hope of fulfilling her immense promise. Of winning a first Grand Slam.
Night one was never meant to drag on like this. Laura Siegemund was never meant to cause this much of a fright. Yes, she had beaten Gauff in their only previous meeting. But the 35-year-old German had slipped to No 121 in the world. She was forced to come through qualifying just to reach this point.
But Siegemund – twice a doubles champion here – pushed Gauff over nearly three tense, tetchy hours, taking the first set and forcing the sixth seed to dig deep into her reserves of grit and courage.
Admittedly, this 3-6 6-2 6-4 victory took so long in part because of the German’s incessant delays, which irked her opponent, the umpire and the crowd – which included Mike Tyson and the Obamas.
Coco Gauff delivered a thrilling comeback victory in the opening round of the US Open
Coco Gauff plays a forehand return against Germany’s Laura Siegemund during her win
Barack and Michelle Obama share a laugh during Coco Gauff’s first-round win on Monday
Make no mistake, though: home favorite Gauff flirted with a first-round exit for the second consecutive Slam. Only after a mammoth opening game of set two, when Gauff finally broke after 26 minutes and eight opportunities, did the tide begin to turn.
Even then, she threatened to throw it away until the end. Far tougher tests lie ahead – defending champion Iga Swiatek could be waiting in the quarterfinals – and there will be concern over Gauff’s first-serve numbers (under 50 per cent) and her 34 unforced errors.
But perhaps given the pressure, the occasion and the fearless brilliance of Siegemund over the first hour, Gauff deserves immense credit, too.
All of the hope and all of the hype is there because, since losing in the first round at Wimbledon, this teenager has changed her team and reversed her fortunes. Her first WTA 500 title and first WTA 1000 crown have both come in the last month. Her past 13 matches have now brought 12 wins.
But she has yet to go beyond the quarterfinals here and the weight of a nation can sag even the broadest shoulders – particularly at a time when America is clamoring for another superstar.
Laura Siegemund of Germany serves against Coco Gauff on Monday night in Queens
At least Gauff has known very little else since her breakthrough at Wimbledon aged 15. She was the future once. Now, at just 19, hope has turned to expectation.
When Gauff emerged on to Arthur Ashe, her ears were covered with headphones, even though nothing could drown out the noise. She wore fluorescent yellow, too, despite never being at risk of drifting into the shadows.
Instead, Gauff complained about the flash of cameras during a tricky opening set, when she struggled with consistency and the unpredictability of Siegemund. The home favorite was forced to save a break point in her second service game; her opponent drew first blood next time round.
The aggression, the angles, the touch, the drop shots. It’s little wonder Siegemund is a decent doubles player. She had Gauff scrambling and, at one point, on the floor – legs splayed. The American moaned to her box; the crowd tried to rouse her. It was all in vain and Gauff trudged off the court after a second break cost her the first set.
Gauff re-emerged with greater spite in her shots and immediately chinks of light began to appear. Three break points were spurned before Gauff forced a fourth following a thrilling exchange of volleys that turned up the volume inside this stadium.
Laura Siegemund, of Germany, speaks with an official during a match against Coco Gauff
Next it was Gauff’s turn to argue with the chair umpire during Monday’s match in Flushing
Gauff approaches the net on Monday night against Laura Siegemund, left, of Germany
The nerveless Siegemund saved that one. And another. Suddenly this felt like a fork in the road. But neither would yield and so on and on we went: break points six and seven were wasted. So were several chances for Siegemund to hold.
The first set had lasted only 43 minutes. By the time Gauff earned an eighth opening, we were at 26 for this game alone. But at long last the American broke and Arthur Ashe rose to its feet. The crowd were up again shortly after, following a bonkers point that saw Gauff slip to the floor, Siegmund flick the ball between her legs and the American scream to the heavens.
She had only fought back to 30-15 on the German’s serve but suddenly electricity was coarsing through the teenager. A second break set up a decider and Gauff broke again at the start of the third.
At last she began to open up and play with more swagger. But Siegemund refused to go away, clawing her way back from 5-1 to 5-4 – with help from her opponent – and forcing Gauff to dig in one final time.