Coco Gauff ran into a whirring buzzsaw Tuesday night in Flushing Meadows and was gone in a jiffy, 6-3, 6-4. Caroline Garcia is the hottest player on tour at the moment, and she made relatively short work of the 18-year-old star in a U.S. Open quarterfinal.
The match wasn’t easy to watch, because Gauff is America’s greatest tennis hope for the future and she couldn’t come close to handling Garcia’s crazy power and pressure.
It was Garcia’s 13th straight victory and it is hard to imagine that anyone will beat the Frenchwoman if she keeps playing this way. Nobody has even come close to taking a set off Garcia in the tournament. She has resurrected her career this summer and is hammering the ball like very few other players in the business.
“I had a great warmup, but it was about her level of play,” Gauff said. “I was hitting 120 on my serves and they were coming back faster.”
The one-sided, 97-minute defeat put a few things in perspective about Gauff, who isn’t quite Serena yet. She can run down balls like few others, but needs a more consistent second serve and a nastier forehand before she is crowned successor. Until Tuesday night, it was assumed Gauff could neutralize the pace of any opponent with her remarkable defense. Then Garcia stepped far into the court, shortened the points, and completely handcuffed Coco.
Sometimes, Garcia set up so close to the net while receiving a second serve that it felt a little bit like taunting. Gauff didn’t always deal well with the unusual strategy, double-faulting six times. Garcia often played shots off the short hop, a la Andre Agassi, shortening Gauff’s reaction time.
Every time the crowd inside Ashe Stadium began to rev up, Garcia took the fans right out of the match with another nasty winner.
“I always play very aggressive,” said Garcia, who will meet Ons Jabeur in the semis. “I always go for my shots. I move forward and I try to follow that way.”
Gauff made some unfathomable groundstroke errors, too. With a wide-open court at her disposal, Coco netted a forehand gimme that handed Garcia a service break in the first game of the second set. After that, Gauff’s cause was all but lost. She had beaten Garcia twice before, but this was a different Garcia and a different, baffled Gauff.
Women’s tennis is truly inscrutable and there are no guarantees, even for Coco.
“I’ll take the experience,” she said. “I learned to go for my shots. Today, I was going for them. They just weren’t going in. Overall, I’m super proud of myself. But I’m hungry for more. So maybe next time.”
This is a teenager who reached the final of the French Open and has already risen to a top 10 ranking in the world. Even more impressively, Gauff has handled the pressure with remarkable poise. She comes off as articulate, thoughtful, and tremendous fun.
If you can’t root for Gauff, you really can’t cheer for anyone. If she is not the next Serena, then that’s not necessarily a bad thing. She has a self-awareness, a humility, that Serena sometimes lacked.
Gauff, for example, doesn’t like to scream on the court after a winning point, unless those screams are disguised by the crowd noise.
“Here I can’t hear myself scream,” she said. “It makes me want to do it more.”
Her back story is not quite as storybook as that of the Williams sisters, or of Francis Tiafoe, though it is still remarkable. She grew up in a middle-class family, demonstrating her tennis talent at an early age in Florida, inspired by a televised Serena match. Gauff won a tournament at age eight, which was when her parents decided this truly was a golden child. Her father became her coach; her mother was her home-school teacher.
Eventually, Coco started training with Serena’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, in France. By age 15, she captured a WTA tournament title and there was palpable excitement in American tennis circles. This sort of prodigy does not come along very often. Better yet, she seemed to enjoy the spotlight.
“I think it really comes down to my family,” Gauff said. “I feel like they never really put pressure on me to do anything. For sure I felt, you know, the expectations. But I also think it’s in my head stepping on the court, I feel like all of that goes away. I’m just lucky that I’m able to find that mindset.”
That admirable mindset on Tuesday night couldn’t stop the speeding locomotive that is Caroline Garcia. But unlike Serena, Coco has plenty of U.S. Opens left to change the plot.