There were quite a few bumps in the road, including 11 double faults and 42 unforced errors, but Coco Gauff’s memorable Wimbledon joy ride carried over to a Grand Slam tournament much closer to home on Tuesday.
In her United States Open debut, Gauff, the 15-year-old American phenom from Delray Beach, Fla., fought back after a shaky start to defeat another talented teenager, Anastasia Potapova of Russia, in the first round, 3-6, 6-2, 6-4.
Gauff is the youngest player to win a singles match at the U.S. Open since the American CiCi Bellis upset Dominika Cibulkova in the first round in 2014.
After rallying from the first-set loss, Gauff appeared to have command of the match with a 4-1 lead in the third set, and then Potapova rallied to even the score at 4-4. Gauff kept her composure and won the final two games in Louis Armstrong Stadium.
“I mean, it was crazy,” Gauff said. “Obviously I was nervous going out on the court. It’s such a big court. Then it’s my home Slam, so I wanted to do well. The crowd really helped me the whole match.”
Last month on the slippery grass of the All England Club, Gauff was precociously poised and precise against veteran elders such as Venus Williams, and she reached the fourth round at Wimbledon.
On Tuesday, on the surer footing provided by the blue hardcourts of the U.S. Open, she was frequently off balance and off target in the early going against a player from her generation. Potapova is 18.
It was the first main-draw U.S. Open singles match for both young women, but Potapova looked much more comfortable in the early stages.
“Look, Coco played her peer tonight; it’s a lot more pressure when you play kids your own age than when you play someone 10, 15 years older,” said Chris Evert, an 18-time Grand Slam singles champion who was once a teenage phenom herself.
Gauff made three double faults in her opening service game and quickly fell behind by 3-0, appearing appeared tight and failing to penetrate with her groundstrokes. Potapova, who has considerable power off both wings, was repeatedly able to surprise Gauff and force her to play defense on the stretch.
Gauff was more reactive than proactive for much of the first set, which she finished with 16 unforced errors and just three winners.
But after losing her opening service game in the second set, Gauff began to find her range and rhythm and also made the sage decision to stop feeding Potapova with consistently big pace.
“I thought Coco fought better than she played obviously,” said Corey Gauff, her father and longtime coach. “I’m hoping she learned that you just have to try to troubleshoot and fight your way through it. She realized the girl really liked a lot of pace and flat shots, and so Coco started lifting the ball up and changing the spins of the ball.”
Like Gauff, Potapova was once the world’s top-ranked junior. Like Gauff, she won a junior Grand Slam singles title — Wimbledon in 2016 — and has had access to elite training and expertise from an early age.
Like Gauff, she has beaten a former Grand Slam champion in a major tournament: Angelique Kerber, in straight sets, in the first round of this year’s French Open.
But unlike Gauff, she is no longer subject to the WTA Tour’s playing restrictions. Since turning 18 in March, Potapova has been eligible to play a full schedule, while Gauff, who won’t turn 18 until March 2022, still has to ration her tournament appearances.
Still ranked outside the top 100, Gauff needs to qualify or receive wild cards to participate in most professional events, and she has already exhausted her quota of wild cards for this season.
But the Grand Slam tournaments continue to play by some of their own rules, and the U.S. Open organizers, eager to showcase a potentially generational talent, found a spot in the main draw for Gauff. Then they found a spot for her on the tournament’s second biggest show court for her opening round.
“I was happy she got a chance to play here, and even if she had needed to go through qualifying, that would still have been a match, and it’s fine,” Corey Gauff said. “But to be honest, I was hoping to be out on Grandstand or Court 17.”
Louis Armstrong Stadium was still half empty when the match began, but many of those in the seats were already on a first-name basis with Gauff.
“Let’s go, Coco!”
“Come on, Coco!”
The cheers came early, and the cheers came late, and some members of her sizable entourage were in tune with the moment, wearing white “Call me Coco” T-shirts in the player box.
“It was different because at Wimbledon, my first match, people were still rooting for me, but obviously there was, like, a lot of people rooting for Venus,” Gauff said. “Where this match, it was entirely for me. I think this is the first match where people actually had a chant for me, so that was pretty cool.”
The buzz has indeed built very quickly since Gauff, whose given name is Cori, made her inspirational Wimbledon run, and it could get very loud in a hurry again here at Flushing Meadows.
More than the general public is watching closely.
“I think she has great intensity playing,” said Rafael Nadal, the Spanish star who embodies on-court intensity and won his opening round on Tuesday night against John Millman. “It’s tough to put a lot of pressure on her now or talk too much about her now. Even if she is doing amazing things, she is very young. In my opinion, she needs to internalize the things step by step. If not, it’s easy to lose a little bit the perspective. I really hope that she has the right people around, and she will become a big star of this sport for sure.”
Corey Gauff has lobbied the WTA for modifications to its age-restriction rule, but he favors maintaining some limits and says he is well aware of the pitfalls of moving too fast.
“Nobody’s in a rush,” he said. “We’re going to play whatever the allotment is, the 14 or 15 tournaments. She needs to grow up with her brothers and spend time with them, so playing a full schedule never made sense anyway, not now.”
Her next chance to bring the U.S. Open crowd to its feet: a second-round match against the veteran qualifier Timea Babos.
That will be played on Thursday, and Gauff was not clear on Tuesday that she would get that much rest.
“I’m still used to playing juniors,” she said. “I forgot about the day off.”