Call Coco the Comeback Kid: Gauff wins US Open debut at 15

NEW YORK — Coco Gauff is quickly becoming the Comeback Kid. Just 15, she doesn’t seem to find any deficit too daunting. She demonstrated that in her U.S. Open debut Tuesday night, much like she did at Wimbledon last month.

With her parents jumping out of their front-row seats and a raucous partisan crowd backing her at Louis Armstrong Stadium, Gauff trailed by a set and a break, then again by a break in the third set, before getting past Anastasia Potapova of Russia 3-6, 6-2, 6-4.

“I was trying to calm myself down,” Gauff said in her on-court interview. “I was almost out.”

That she was. But similar to the way she saved match points in a Centre Court match at the All England Club during her captivating run to the fourth round there, Gauff did not give in or give up.

All along the way, her mother and father were clapping and yelling, celebrating nearly every point their daughter claimed.

“I think I gave them a heart attack, especially my mom,” Gauff said. “And my dad, he looks a little bit tired over there, too.”

As strong as her serve and other strokes are, she’s already showing an ability to make adjustments during a match and figure out ways to win against older opponents, time and again. Gauff was ranked 313th when she got a wild-card invitation into qualifying at Wimbledon, then became the youngest player in history to make it through those preliminary rounds at that tournament to make her first Grand Slam appearance.

After beating Venus Williams in the first round, then a 2017 Wimbledon semifinalist in the second, Gauff got to Week 2 before her surprising showing ended with a loss to eventual champion Simona Halep.

It was enough to persuade the U.S. Tennis Association to provide a wild card into its event.

Gauff did not start well against Potapova, ranked 72nd. Gauff double-faulted three times in her first service game. She also missed a backhand barely wide, followed by a forehand barely wide — they originally were ruled in, but Potapova challenged both and the calls were overtuned — to get broken and trail 2-0.

Maybe Gauff was trying to be too fine, sending shots right near the lines. She trailed 3-0 within 15 minutes.

It was a breezy evening with the temperature sliding down to about 70 degrees, and both players hit the ball violently while covering the court well, creating lengthy, entertaining points often introduced by serves at, or above, 100 mph.

They seemed like a couple of players with the benefit of years on tour, not teens each making her debut in the U.S. Open’s main draw. Potapova is a past Wimbledon junior champion, and still only 18.

Soon enough, it was 5-1, and then that set belonged to Potapova, with Gauff turning to her guest box and putting her palms up, as if to ask, “What can I do differently?”

Not much later, when Potapova broke to open the second set, Gauff’s shoulders slumped and she whacked her racket against her right leg. And that’s when her turnaround began. With spectators roaring their approval, Gauff broke right back and was on her way to dominating the second set.

Gauff went down 1-0 in the third set, then took four games in a row. But at 4-1, Potapova took a medical timeout and a trainer massaged her right shoulder. She quickly pulled even at 4-all.

Gauff took command from there, breaking and then serving out the victory. This is still all so new to her, but she doesn’t play like it.

Elsewhere, No. 2 Rafael Nadal cruised in straight sets, but two top-10 men considered possible future major champs tumbled to first-round exits for the second straight Slam: No. 4 Dominic Thiem and No. 8 Stefanos Tsitsipas. And Wimbledon semifinalist Roberto Bautista Agut, seeded No. 10, also was beaten.

Defending women’s champion Naomi Osaka, the No. 1 seed, dropped her first five games against 84th-ranked Anna Blinkova, wasted a match point in the second set, then finally put together a 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-2 victory.

Moments after wasting a match point, Osaka put her right hand in the shape of a gun and pointed two fingers at her temple. Her body language told the story: the eye rolls, the kneeling at the baseline, the balled-up fists covering her face at a changeover, the racket resting atop her head.

Back in Arthur Ashe Stadium, where she beat Serena Williams in last year’s chaotic final, Osaka told the crowd during her postmatch interview, “I don’t think I’ve ever been this nervous in my life. For me, I just came off really slow and I never really found my rhythm.”

During the professional era, which began in 1968, only two U.S. Open women’s champions have lost in the first round the following year: It happened in 2005 to Svetlana Kuznetsova and again in 2017 to Angelique Kerber — who was beaten by none other than Osaka, ranked 45th at the time and yet to get past the third round at a major tournament.

Osaka thought back to that match Tuesday.

“I could kind of see how stressed out (Kerber) was and that was in my favor,” Osaka recalled. “I don’t want to give people that look.”

Howard Fendrich is an Associated Press writer.

This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/sports/article/Call-Coco-the-Comeback-Kid-Gauff-wins-US-Open-14383324.php.

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