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This year’s US Open belongs to Coco Gauff, win or lose

It’s Sunday night, just after 6 p.m., and Coco Gauff is going through her post-match routine in the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center area, where players warm up before games and cool down after them.

Also present are two other stars of American tennis, Frances Tiafoe and Ben Shelton, who are among her close friends. Tiafoe is slowly retiring after his US Open win in the fourth round, setting up his all-American quarterfinal match against Shelton, who is preparing for a mixed doubles. The friendly trash talk has begun, and Gauff can’t resist engaging in it. She knows exactly how to do it.

Tiafoe, who spends a lot of time shirtless and doesn’t lack confidence when it comes to his muscular physique, and Shelton play this tournament in light-colored sleeveless shirts. Shelton looks better in his, Gauff tells Tiafoe.

And by the way, world No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz, who beat Tiafoe in the Open semifinals last year and also plays in sleeveless Technicolor. “You wear confetti,” says Gauff.

She then brags about defeating one of the tournament’s princes and pokes fun at her 60+ year old coach’s fondness for Jolly Ranchers and the dad rock songs he keeps sending her. She also has to pose for the endless series of selfies that so many, especially Gen Z fans, desperately want while paying her their ultimate compliment.

“My queen,” they say about her.

In Tuesday’s quarter-finals, No. 6 seed Gauff meets No. 20 seed Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia, who eliminated top seed Iga Swiatek in her previous game. If Gauff wins, she’ll have to survive two more exciting games to win the tournament. But over a week into the last Grand Slam event of the year, one thing has become clear: at 19, Gauff is the queen of this US Open.

Fans rush across the grounds to get to their seats at Arthur Ashe Stadium ahead of their singles games. Nobody wants to miss their first fist-pumping “Come on!” or one of her ball-chasing points, going from corner to corner, backcourt to net and then back again, increasingly often ending with her cracking an overhead smash or her opponent sending the ball into the net.

Seats in the smaller general admission courts begin to fill up well before she and doubles partner Jessica Pegula hit the court. Organizers moved their doubles game to Ashe on Monday when space opened up late in the afternoon. They have won.

NBA player Jimmy Butler of the Miami Heat is one of the many bold names who have come out for their games. Others include singer Justin Bieber and his wife Hailey, a model and influencer. They were in the house on Friday when Gauff beat Elise Mertens in the third round. Butler was also there, returning to her fourth-round win over Caroline Wozniacki on Sunday.

Gauff’s reaction: “Again?”

Perhaps that was always the case for Gauff, who at the age of ten secured a coveted spot in Patrick Mouratoglou’s tennis academy training program, who coached Serena Williams.

Like everyone who saw Gauff on the court at the time, Mouratoglou was impressed by her early speed, power and ability to change direction at lightning speed and get a good shot. He called her to his office for an interview, through which he interviewed all his prospects and asked her why she thought she could become a top player. She had seemed shy on the pitch, but now she looked him in the eyes from start to finish of their conversation and told him she wanted that more than any other girl.

That’s what a lot of players say, Mouratoglou said in an interview on Monday. He began to field them in matches against players who were more developmentally advanced than them. Most of the time she found a way to win.

At the age of 13 she reached the final of the US Open junior tournament. At 15, she beat Venus Williams on Center Court at Wimbledon to reach the fourth round.

“She’s ready for big things,” said Mouratoglou. “Of course she feels the pressure like everyone else, but the difference is the belief that you belong there, that you should do well, that you’re allowed to be in the spotlight, but you enjoy having that pressure, that pressure that she’s had since she was a child.”

Living under that observation, especially if you see early gains, can have its pros and cons. In women’s tennis over the last decade there have been many players who won a Grand Slam tournament in their late teens or early 20’s and then struggled to win three games in one tournament the next year.

In her first seasons on the tour, Gauff couldn’t wait to reach the top given her breakthrough at Wimbledon in 2019 and her run to the final of the French Open last year. Prior to this season, however, she spent some time studying the top 10 players and recent Grand Slam tournament winners. She saw that many of them peaked between the ages of 22 and 26.

She wasn’t yet 19, but she was about to start her fifth season in top-level tennis. Her mother told her to be patient that she didn’t yet have the “strong strength of a grown woman” and said she would know when she did.

“I don’t think I’m as mature as other players,” she said one afternoon in Australia. “It depends on life on earth, not how many years you’ve been on the road.”

Some may disagree with this assessment. Three years ago, when she was 16, Gauff took the microphone at a Black Lives Matter rally in her hometown of Delray Beach, Fla., days after the killing of George Floyd.

“No matter how big or small your platform, you have to use your voice,” she told the crowd that day. “I have a quote from Dr. King saying, ‘The silence of the good people is worse than the brutality of the bad people.’ We must not remain silent.”

This summer she was one of the standout players at the Citi Open in Washington DC. She had suffered some disappointing results over the previous two months, losing to Swiatek in the quarterfinals for the seventh straight French Open and losing in the first round at Wimbledon .

But the role of headlining a mid-sized tournament comes with some 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 everything was business as usual. Then she went out and won the tournament, and Ein felt there was something different about the teenager who first competed in his event in 2019.

“She exuded a sense of being in control of the situation, both on and off the pitch,” Ein said. “In every generation there seems to be someone in tennis who breaks through at a very young age and the test is how you cope with that. The greats seem to have a composure that enables them to succeed.”

As of 2019, Gauff’s face has not been hard to find on the billboards at any tournament she plays in. Still, their management team at Team8, the boutique agency Roger Federer founded with his longtime agent Tony Godsick, has tried to take a slow-and-steady approach.

She could do deals with dozens of companies. So far their portfolio has only included Rolex, Bose, Barilla, Baker Tilly and UPS, alongside the usual racquet and apparel sponsors New Balance and Head

Gauff still rocks back and forth at times when speaking in public. She’ll giggle at herself mid-sentence. She is over a year away from legally ordering a drink in the United States.

Should she lose to Ostapenko on Tuesday or anyone else in the coming days, time will be on her side for a long time. But in many ways, her time has come.

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