Coco Gauff saluted the fans in every direction of Arthur Ashe Stadium on Tuesday, thanking them for their support through one of the easiest, but also most significant, wins of her young career. She then spread out her arms and with a big smile waved her fingers upward, as if to ask for just a little more love.
That is all Gauff, 19, needs, now, just a tad more support to help accomplish her dream. With only two more victories at this U.S. Open — four sets — Gauff would capture her first major singles title, and for now she is handling the pressure, if she even notices it, with the cool composure of a multiple-time champion.
“I told myself, ‘Man, I should enjoy this,’” she said. “I’m having so much fun doing it. I should not think about the results. I’m living a very lucky life and I’m so blessed. I don’t want to take it for granted.”
Winning tends to lead to smiles and Gauff, the No. 6 seed, is playing some of her best tennis, taking full advantage of a favorable draw to blaze into a U.S. Open semifinal for the first time.
Under the noon sun on Tuesday, Gauff pounded a weary Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia into near oblivion, 6-0, 6-2, in just 68 minutes to become the first American teenager to reach the U.S. Open semifinal since Serena Williams in 2001.
Williams was also 19 that year. She went on to reach the final, where she lost to Venus Williams, her older sister. Serena Williams had already won the U.S. Open in 1999 and eventually built her total to 23 major singles titles, staking a claim as perhaps the best player in tennis history.
“She’s my idol,” Gauff said of Serena Williams, “and I think if you told me when I was younger that I would be in these same stat lines as her I would freak out. I’m still trying not to think about it a lot because I don’t want to get my head big or add pressure, but it is a cool moment to have that stat alongside her.”
In her semifinal, Gauff will play another eminently beatable opponent in No. 10 Karolina Muchova, who defeated No. 30 Sorana Cirstea, 6-0, 6-3, in their quarterfinal match Tuesday night.
Gauff has recent experience against Muchova, a win last month in the final of the Western & Southern Open in Ohio, their only career meeting, helping to make her road to the final, and perhaps her first Grand Slam title, potentially quite smooth. She has already avoided a prospective quarterfinal match with top-seeded Iga Swiatek after Ostapenko upset her in a late match Sunday night.
When Ostapenko returned to play 36 hours later with the temperature on the court in Ashe above 90 degrees, she was no match for Gauff. Attempting to hit aggressive winners from the beginning, Ostapenko made 36 unforced errors as Gauff played a patient, mature game, allowing her flustered opponent to cave in on her own.
Gauff, who won the tournaments in Washington, D.C., and Mason, Ohio, after a disappointing first-round loss at Wimbledon, has continued her success on hard courts by rolling through the draw in Queens. She has beaten three unseeded players — including the former world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki — No. 32 Elise Mertens and No. 20 Ostapenko. Her biggest test could be No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka, if they both reach the final.
Gauff was unable to watch Ostapenko sweep Swiatek from her path on Sunday night because of a cable television dispute with the provider for her hotel. But when she saw the score, she knew that the greatest obstacle to success had simply vanished.
“I was shocked,” Gauff said. “But I knew that I was going to have to go out there and play tennis, regardless of whether I was playing her or Jelena.”
Ostapenko was understandably upset that she had to play so soon after her three-set win against Swiatek. She said she returned to her hotel in Manhattan at about 2 a.m. on Monday and did not fall asleep until 5 a.m., buzzing on adrenaline.
She said she had been told after her match that her quarterfinal against Gauff would be at night, and considering Gauff’s popularity, it was reasonable to assume that they would be given that premier time slot. Instead, tournament organizers put them on court at noon, the first singles match of the day. Frances Tiafoe and Ben Shelton, two popular rising Americans, were given the night stage on Ashe instead, following the Cirstea-Muchova match.
“When I saw the schedule I was a little bit surprised,” Ostapenko said, “not in a really good way.”
Ostapenko also said she had trouble with the sun, and added that she actually expected more from Gauff, even though she won only two games and held serve just once. But her real gripe was with the scheduling.
“I think it’s a little bit crazy,” she said.
Gauff, at her post-match news conference, spoke eloquently about her place in tennis, about handling pressure, growing up famous and learning from the example her grandmother, Yvonne Lee Odom, who integrated Seacrest High School in Delray Beach, Fla., in 1961.
“She always reminds me that I’m a person first, instead of an athlete,” Gauff said.
The athlete side of her has gathered all her skill, swagger and savvy to power to new achievements at the U.S. Open. She reached the final of the 2022 French Open, where she lost to Swiatek, but this is her home tournament, where fans — and oddsmakers — have made her new favorite.
She has reveled in the support of the fans, who have come to the U.S. Open in record numbers this year, in part to see her. She has not shied from the attention, nor failed to smile, at least after her five wins.
When she was younger, Gauff’s dreams were about winning tournaments, she said, like the U.S. Open. But in those dreams, she never saw fans or autograph seekers or any other people at all. Just the trophy.
In hindsight, she said, people like the ones in Ashe on Tuesday and the ones who will cheer for her going forward, the ones who have said she inspires them, have made the experience even better.
“I will always continue to embrace the crowd, embrace the people,” she said, “because the conversations that I’ve had, really made me feel like I’ve done well in this life, so far.”