On Thursday, Coco Gauff saw a photo memory from five years ago. It had the caption “courtside seats” at Arthur Ashe Stadium as she had watched one of her idols, Venus Williams, play.
“I was trying to flex to my friends that I had courtside seats, and now I’m on the court,” Gauff said while laughing in a post-match interview.
A day after that five-year anniversary, the No. 12 seed Gauff handily defeated the 20th seed, Madison Keys, 6-2, 6-3, and warmed up the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium for the second time this week for her other idol, Serena Williams, who was scheduled to play at 7 p.m. The win avenged a loss that Gauff had against Keys in Adelaide, Australia, in January.
“I just told myself I’m going to go down swinging,” Gauff said. “The last time, I think I got a little bit passive, so she just overpowered me, and today I was like, I’m not going to let that happen.”
Serena Williams and Gauff are in the bottom half of the single’s draw. Gauff has been watching Williams’s matches closely, not only because she is one of Gauff’s favorite players and biggest inspirations, but also because she is hoping to face her.
“It’s been a lifelong dream of mine,” Gauff said.
Gauff will take on Shuai Zhang, who is ranked 36th in women’s singles and defeated Rebecca Marino on Friday, in the fourth round.
The fourth round is the furthest Gauff has reached in singles at the U.S. Open. Three years ago, Gauff, then 15, left the court in tears as she was overpowered by Naomi Osaka, then the world No. 1, in the third round. Fighting through tears in the post-match interview that Osaka suggested she do, Gauff then said she would learn from the loss.
Since then, she’s lost in the first and second rounds at the Open, but on Friday her evolution on the court showed. Gauff, now 18, looked like a confident veteran, wearing her blue, pink and light green “Coco CG1” signature shoe and responding to everything Keys threw her way.
“I was really delusional then,” Gauff said of that 2019 match with Osaka. “It was my first U.S. Open, and I thought I was going to go out flying colors. And, yeah, I didn’t.” She added: “I’m definitely happy that people expected things of me, but I think it’s more focused on my expectations of myself than other people’s.”
After Keys won the opening game of the first set, Gauff won six of the next seven to take the set. The victory did not come as easily as the game differential would indicate, though, as Keys forced Gauff to sprint across the court and hit shots from strenuous angles.
In the second game, both struggled to secure a win, constantly going from an advantage back to deuce. As Keys forced Gauff to run seemingly everywhere on the court with powerful shots and with Gauff holding the advantage, it seemed as though the game were heading back to deuce. But Gauff connected on a forehand close to the net that landed just behind Keys to take the game and let out an emphatic scream as the crowd roared with her.
Gauff, one of the most popular players in tennis, has had a significant crowd advantage through her first two matches, receiving a stadium’s worth of roars when she wins and sighs of disappointment when her opponent gets the best of her. Friday was slightly different as the crowd consistently celebrated Keys, a fellow American. It was a luxury Gauff’s other opponents didn’t enjoy. Three siblings sitting next to each other close to the court seemed to be having a match of their own as one screamed, “Go Madison!” as loudly as possible while another yelled, “Go, Coco!”
The cheers for Keys faded, though, as she launched a ball and let out a frustrated scream while the crowd clapped for Gauff. Then, she bounced back, and so did the crowd roars, winning that game and the next to bring the total to 4-3 in the second set. But Keys’s run ended there, and Gauff dominated the remainder of the set to win the match.
Gauff and Zhang have faced each other once in singles. Gauff won, 7-6 (1), 7-5, at the Miami Open in March. Last year, they played each other in doubles as Zhang and Samantha Stosur won the U.S. Open women’s doubles title over Gauff and Caty McNally.
Zhang, 33, remembers Gauff’s talent from the match in Miami and how “cute” Gauff’s younger brother was cheering in the stands. She said it was hard for her to picture Gauff, who reached the French Open final earlier this year, which she lost to Iga Swiatek, as an 18-year-old because she remembers her as the “14, 15-year-old” who was beginning to play professionally. And because it makes her feel old, she added.
Like Zhang, Gauff’s first thought about her fourth-round opponent didn’t have much to do with tennis. Zhang is one of the most liked people on tour, Gauff said. She remembers how Zhang congratulated her when Gauff became the No. 1 doubles player, despite her overtaking Zhang, whose career-high doubles ranking is No. 2.
“She’s such a tough competitor on the court, but also, as soon as it’s over, she has so much respect for everyone,” Gauff said. “So, I’m just happy that tennis has someone like her in the sport.”