Before Coco Gauff can accept the proverbial torch that was passed when Serena Williams decided to evolve away from tennis, before she can lead a generation of U.S. women toward the sublime heights scaled by Serena and Venus Williams, she must compete better against the Caroline Garcias of the world — players who lack Gauff’s gifts and athleticism but draw strength from their fearlessness.
Gauff, an 18-year-old Floridian, will crack the top 10 for the first time when the Women’s Tennis Assn. updates its world rankings next week. She will have on her resume her best performance at the U.S. Open, where fans appreciated her youth and vigor and big serves and adopted her as their own. She can take pride in having been the youngest U.S. woman to reach the quarterfinals at Flushing Meadows in 13 years.
But her run was stopped cold Tuesday by Garcia, who set the tone by sweeping the first four games of their quarterfinal and remained beyond Gauff’s increasingly frustrated reach in a 6-3, 6-4 victory played under the roof at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“I think it was all her,” Gauff said, both generous and accurate, when asked how much of the loss could be attributed to Garcia’s excellence and how much to her own missteps.
It’s no shame that Garcia prevailed. The 28-year-old native of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France, deserved the victory. Once ranked as high as No. 4 in the world and instinctively aggressive, she had backed off after critics said she was too aggressive. Also hampered by a foot injury, she fell to 74th in the rankings at the end of last year before hiring a new coach, Bertrand Perret. He took the coaching role her father had been filling and persuaded her to listen to her instincts.
She’s bolder and, not coincidentally, more successful. She will take a 13-match winning streak into her semifinal against Ons Jabeur of Tunisia, the runner-up at Wimbledon this summer. Jabeur became the first Arab or African woman to reach the U.S. Open semifinals in the Open Era (1968 and after) when she defeated Ajla Tomljanovic 6-4, 7-6 (4) earlier Tuesday.
“The path is very clear right now which direction I have to go, under stress, under pressure,” Garcia said. “I’m just trying to follow this path.”
She had narrow edges over Gauff in rallies of zero to four shots and in rallies of five to eight shots, but notably won eight of 10 rallies that lasted nine shots or longer. Her fierce forehand and invigorated backhand applied pressure that smothered Gauff, who slammed her racket on the ground after she sent a forehand into the net to give Garcia a service break to start the second set.
“Yeah, it’s definitely tricky, especially when you’re hitting good serves. I was hitting a couple 120s [mph] on the serve, the return was coming back faster,” Gauff said. “Usually, you expect that to happen once or twice, but it was happening a lot with her today.”
Gauff, seeded 12th to Garcia’s 17th, had won both of their previous encounters. Coming off a solid win over Zhang Shuai in the fourth round — which included a Dikembe Mutombo finger wag to signify that she wasn’t about to let anyone take that victory away from her — Gauff had every reason to believe she could carry that momentum against Garcia. That was reinforced by her warmup.
“I had probably one of the best warmups I had this tournament,” Gauff said. “I was striking the ball really clean.”
And then Garcia took over. Gauff halted her briefly in the first set with a service break that cut Garcia’s lead to 4-1, and she held serve the next game, clinching it with an ace. Garcia went up 5-2 on a forehand down the line and went on to win the set on an errant backhand by Gauff.
“I think she hit a lot of big shots, especially a couple, like, forehand down the lines, which I think I was hitting some good, deep balls. I knew that because she stands right on top of the baseline,” Gauff said. “The previous times that I played her, I would say she’s definitely striking the ball much better. Kudos to her and her team because I think she’s gotten a lot better since the last time I played her.
“I think overall it was a good level by her. I mean, like I said after the match, it was too good. That’s all you can do sometimes.”
In the second set, down an early service break, Gauff couldn’t convert a break point in the sixth game and Garcia surged ahead 4-2. They each held the rest of the way. The crowd roared for Gauff to make a comeback that she simply couldn’t produce.
What matters now is how Gauff digests this, how she reacts to it, what she takes from it that will make her better.
To this point, she has consistently displayed impressive maturity, handling ever-higher expectations with grace and poise. She rued the 24 unforced errors she committed Tuesday but wisely took a big-picture approach.
“For me, it’s hard to balance being proud and being disappointed. So I think I’m learning more to not be so much disappointed in myself,” she said. “Overall, I’m super proud of myself on this tournament. But I’m hungry for more. So, maybe next year.”
Maybe so. The sooner, the better. That torch needs someone to carry it.