It’s Sunday night, a little after 6, and Coco Gauff is doing her postmatch routine in the section of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center where players warm up before matches and cool down after them.
Two other stars of American tennis, Frances Tiafoe and Ben Shelton, who are among his close friends, were also there. Tiafoe is coming off the back of his fourth-round win at the US Open, which set up his all-American quarterfinals match against Shelton, who is preparing to play a mixed doubles match. The friendly trash talk has begun, and Gauff can’t help but get involved. He knows how to do it.
Tiafoe, who spends a lot of time shirtless and lacks confidence when it comes to his rugged physique, and Shelton are playing this tournament in bright sleeveless shirts. Shelton looks better than him, Gauff told Tiafoe.
And, by the way, so is Carlos Alcaraz, the world No. 1, who defeated Tiafoe in the Open semifinals last year and also plays in sleeveless Technicolor. “You’re wearing confetti,” Gauff said.
Then he brags that he won over one of the princes of the tournament and to laugh at his 60-something coach’s penchant for Jolly Ranchers and the dad-rock tunes he keeps sending him. He should also pose for the endless series of selfies that many, especially Gen-Z fans, love while giving him their ultimate compliment.
“My queen,” they say of her.
In Tuesday’s quarterfinals, sixth-seeded Gauff will face 20th-seeded Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia, who eliminated top-seeded Iga Swiatek in her previous match. If Gauff wins, he still has to find his way through two more pressure-packed matches to win the tournament. But a week into the final Grand Slam event of the year, one thing has become clear: Gauff, at age 19, is the queen of this US Open.
Fans rush across the grounds to get to their seats in Arthur Ashe Stadium before his singles matches. No one wants to miss his first fist pumping “Come on!” or one of his points chasing the ball into the corner, back into the net and then back again, and increasingly ending with him cracking an overhead smash or sending his opponent’s ball into the net.
The first-come-first-served seats on the smaller courts with general admission access begin to fill up long before he and his doubles partner, Jessica Pegula, take the court. Organizers moved their Monday doubles match to Ashe when space became available in the afternoon. They won.
NBA player Jimmy Butler of the Miami Heat was one of the many boldface names that appeared for his matches. Others include singer Justin Bieber and his wife, Hailey, a model and influencer. They were at home on Friday for Gauff’s third round win over Elise Mertens. Butler was there, too, and returned for her fourth-round win over Caroline Wozniacki on Sunday.
Gauff’s reaction: “Again?”
Perhaps this has always been the way for Gauff, who at the age of 10 secured a coveted spot in the training program at the tennis academy of Patrick Mouratoglou, who coached Serena Williams.
Like anyone who has seen Gauff on court before, Mouratoglou came away impressed with his early speed, strength and ability to change direction in an instant and produce a quality shot. He called him into his office for an interview, something he put all his prospects through, and asked him why he thought he could be a top player. He had appeared shy at court, but now he looked her in the eye from the beginning of their conversation to the end, and told her he loved her more than any other woman.
A lot of players say that, Mouratoglou said in an interview on Monday. He began putting him on the court in matches against players who were more advanced in their development than him. More often than not, he finds a way to win.
At 13, he made the final of the US Open junior tournament. At 15, she defeated Venus Williams on Center Court at Wimbledon and made the fourth round.
“He is ready for greatness,” Mouratoglou said. “Of course, she feels the pressure like everybody does, but the difference comes from having the belief that you belong there, that you are supposed to do well, that you may be in the spotlight but you enjoy having that pressure, pressure that she has had since he was a child.”
Living under that scrutiny, especially when early success comes, can have its advantages and disadvantages. Women’s tennis over the past decade has been full of players who won a Grand Slam event in their late teens or early 20s, then struggled for the next year to win three matches in a tournament.
In his first few seasons on the tour, Gauff has been eager to reach the top, given his Wimbledon victory in 2019 and his run to the French Open final last year. Before this season, however, he spent some time studying the top 10 players and the recent Grand Slam tournament winners. He saw that many of them came from the age of 22 to 26.
He’s not yet 19, but he’s about to begin his fifth season of top-level tennis. Her mother tells her to be patient, that she doesn’t have “grown woman strength,” and says she’ll know when she gets it.
“I don’t think I’m as mature as other players,” he said one afternoon in Australia. “That comes in life on earth, not how many years you tour.”
Some may disagree with that assessment. Three years ago, when he was 16, Gauff took the microphone at a Black Lives Matter rally in his hometown, Delray Beach, Fla., days after the killing of George Floyd.
“No matter how big or small your platform is, you have to use your voice,” he told the crowd that day. “I saw a quote by Dr. King who says, ‘The silence of good people is worse than the cruelty of bad people.’ We must not be silent.”
This summer, he was one of the featured players at the Citi Open in Washington D.C. He has endured some disappointing results over the past two months, losing to Swiatek for the seventh consecutive time at the French Open in the quarterfinals and bowing out in the first round of Wimbledon .
But the role of a headliner in a midsize tournament comes with certain responsibilities. Mark Ein, the owner of the Citi Open, watched as Gauff chatted with VIPs, including a member of President Biden’s cabinet and a Supreme Court justice, as if it were business as usual. Then he went out and won the tournament, and Ein sensed that there was something special about the teenager who played his first event in 2019.
“He gave a sense of being in control of the situation, both on the court and off,” Ein said. “Every once in a generation in tennis it seems like someone breaks through at a very early age, and the test is how you handle it. The all-time greats seem to have a tenacity that allows them to succeed.”
Since 2019, it hasn’t been hard to find Gauff’s face on billboards at any tournament he’s playing in. However, his management team at Team8, the boutique agency Roger Federer started with his longtime agent, Tony Godsick, tried to take a slow and steady approach.
He can make deals with dozens of companies. So far, his portfolio beyond the usual racket and apparel sponsors, New Balance and Head, only includes Rolex, Bose, Barilla, Baker Tilly and UPS
Gauff still sometimes goes back and forth when he speaks in public. He would smile to himself mid-sentence. He was more than a year away from legally ordering a drink in the United States.
If she loses to Ostapenko on Tuesday or someone else in the next few days, time will still be on her side for a long time. But in many ways, his time has come.