More than a month ago, the idea that Coco Gauff and Jessica Pegula could enter the US Open as the two hottest players in tennis seemed implausible.
Gauff had a frustrating and frustrating spring and early summer. There was another one-sided loss to Iga Swiatek, the world No. 1, at the French Open, and then a first-round exit from Wimbledon.
Pegula again ran into her quarterfinal wall at Wimbledon, despite holding a break point for a 5-1 lead in the third set against Marketa Vondrousova, the eventual champion. And as a doubles team, Gauff and Pegula lost in the French Open final and fell in the fourth round at Wimbledon.
Then came August.
There are three women’s singles tournaments that are important to the North American hardcourt swing before it culminates with the US Open. Gauff and Pegula swept them.
On consecutive Sundays, Gauff won the Citi Open in Washington, DC, Pegula won the National Bank Open in Montreal, and Gauff won the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati. Within a month, they had positioned themselves as legitimate contenders to claim their home country’s Grand Slam.
That can be a double-edged sword for Americans who come to New York, where the spotlight burns the hottest, there are many distractions, and there is a lot of noise, both literal and metaphorical. The subways and commuter trains rumbling through the stadiums, the planes from LaGuardia roaring overhead and the people shouting from the stands represent the Sturm und Drang that goes along with carrying the hopes and expectations of those hometown fan
“Just embracing it,” Gauff, 19, said after the tournament in Cincinnati. It was the biggest win of his career, especially since he beat Swiatek, in the semifinals, for the first time. Gauff has been 0-7 against Swiateklost all 14 of their sets, heading into that match.
“Everyone’s path for you is not what’s real, it’s not what’s going to happen,” said Gauff, who has been playing with heavy expectations since he made the fourth round of Wimbledon when he was 15. only. “Even the path you want for yourself might not happen.”
Pegula, 29, came to this moment from the other end. A classic late-bloomer without the stature or obvious athleticism of many of the best women, she didn’t break into the top 100 until she was 25 years old. Today he is ranked third in the world, but he is often not mentioned in discussions of the best players in the world.
That’s not always a bad thing for Pegula, who last week was trying to keep things low-key, even as she headlined a junior tennis clinic in Harlem and bounced from one sponsored event or interview to the one more.
“I never thought I’d be here, but at the same time, I’m really happy that I am,” Pegula said before hitting the ball for more than an hour with some of Harlem’s talented young players.
As the US Open gets under way, American tennis is soaring with optimism. A year after Serena Williams’ retirement, there’s a “who’s next” vibe running through the sport. The US is the only country with two women in the top six. The country also has two men in the top 10 for the first time in years, with many eyes on last year’s breakout semifinalist, Frances Tiafoe.
That’s no small thing to manage.
“This is our home slam,” American Danielle Collins, 29, said in an interview last week. “You want to be fine.”
Collins arrived in New York for last year’s Open, just seven months removed from winning the sport’s other hardcourt Grand Slam, the Australian Open, where she lost in the finals to world No. 1 is Ashleigh Barty.
Last year, Collins didn’t know how he would react to what awaited him at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. The organizers scheduled him in a series of feature night matches, and he found himself soaking up the energy and the surreal experience of living something he had dreamed of as a child watching the tournament in television. In the moments when his heart beat faster, he focused on slowing his breathing, sometimes switching his breathing from one nostril to the other.
“It’s going to be weird, but you have to play like you don’t care,” said Collins, who made it to the fourth round before falling in a three-set match to Aryna Sabalenka.
That’s easier said than done, especially for Gauff and Pegula, who know they’re in one of those rare moments in their careers where their form and their fitness have peaked and they’re brimming with confidence.
In July, Gauff became frustrated with his recent results, the shakiness of his forehand and the dichotomy between the progress he felt he was making in practice and his inability to secure important wins. He added a new coach to his team that should be familiar to anyone who has paid attention to tennis, especially in America over the last 40 years.
Brad Gilbert, the former pro and ESPN commentator who coached Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick, spent much of his coaching time last year turning Zendaya into a serviceable tennis player, the actress and singer for her part in the movie “Challengers” due out next spring, about a professional tennis love triangle.
Gilbert, 62, was eager for another gig with a top player, and began interviewing Gauff’s parents and agent after his Wimbledon loss. Gauff was reluctant.
For Gauff, Gilbert’s coaching success often happened before he was born, he said with a chuckle at the Citi Open. That said, Gilbert started with Agassi and Roddick shortly before they won the US Open. And his adjustments to his strokes, making them shorter and more controlled and reminding him at every turn of his supreme athleticism – no one covered a court like Gauff in those days it – started showing immediate results.
“Let’s be real, anyone who watches me play knows what I have to do,” Gauff said in Washington when asked if there might be conflicts between Gilbert and Pere Riba, the coach he hired in June. “You know, they know, the fans know.”
As for Pegula, he said he let the sadness of his Wimbledon loss marinate for a few days. But once she got home to Florida, a relentless tennis schedule forced her to start mapping out her US Open training plan — gym sessions, court time, treatments with her physiotherapist.
Then he headed to Montana for a few days. He rode a horse and went fly fishing. He immersed himself in the natural beauty and felt renewed vigor.
However, he arrived in Montreal somewhat under the weather and unfocused. His first goal was to survive the first fight, and he did. Three days later, she defeated Swiatek in the semifinals, then won the final, 6–1, 6–0, defeating an exhausted Liudmila Samsonova, who was forced to play her delayed semifinal match earlier in that day.
Pegula shook off her round-of-16 loss in Cincinnati to Marie Bouzkova and headed to New York, where she tries to let the energy of the city and the fans flow through her tennis, especially when she hits the court with Gauff for doubles.
“I remember even last year,” he said. “We lost in the first round, but we had amazing people.”
More of that is on the way.