NEW YORK — When Coco Gauff was 10, she invited one of her idols — a then 21-year-old tennis player named Sloane Stephens — to her birthday party. It seemed like a long shot, but Stephens showed up. Gauff still remembers how surreal that felt — having a professional tennis player at her party.
Seven years later, Gauff found herself in another surreal situation: facing Stephens for the first time in their careers, in the second round of the U.S. Open. This memory will undoubtedly be less pleasant for Gauff. Stephens delivered a dominant performance, defeating No. 21 seed Gauff in just two sets: 6-4, 6-2. It took Stephens only 66 minutes to move on to the third round.
Stephens said early in the tournament that her goal is to return to her former dominance. She won the U.S. Open in 2017 — the same year that a 13-year-old Gauff was competing in the junior U.S. Open finals — but fell out of the top 20 in 2019, and then out of the top 60 in 2020. She’s currently ranked No. 66, but Wednesday night’s win could be seen as an inflection point of sorts for the 28-year-old. She broke Gauff three times and held all of her serves. Her forehand power and placement were strong, which made her match against Gauff all the more swift.
“I will say she probably hit her forehand the best that I’ve seen in a long time,” Gauff said after the match. “Also that could be just different because this is my first time facing her. I never practiced with her, so… That could just be my own thing because this is my first time feeling her ball.
“But she definitely played well tonight. She definitely was the better player tonight.”.
Unlike Stephens — who has played in 112 Grand Slam matches — Gauff is still very early in her career. That isn’t to say she hasn’t accomplished a lot: in her debut at the U.S. Open in 2019, she made it to the third round as a wild card — the youngest player to reach that stage of the Open since Anna Kournikova in 1996 — but only to say that there is more room to grow.
“I think that I feel like I’ve learned that I’m capable of making it far in slams,” Gauff said. “I think if I tighten up a few things, that I’m capable of winning one. The past couple slams I’ve lost to players that have gone to the quarters or won eventually, so it shows that I’m there.
“I feel like there’s just an experience lacking that I have. I definitely think it shows. I think that I just need to play more matches, so I feel more comfortable on the pressure moments.”.
When the match ended, Stephens greeted her friend at the net, telling her “I love you” before they parted ways.
“I think everyone knows I love Coco,” Stephens said in an on-court interview. “She’s such a great player, and I feel so lucky to have seen her grow up and see her play from when she was like 8 years old. I have seen her game really transition and change. I’m really proud of the player she is and the girl she is and the woman she is becoming.”.
Follow Alex Coffey on Twitter @byalexcoffey.