NEW YORK — Coco Gauff entered her first-round match at this year’s U.S. Open a popular pick by experts to win the tournament, based largely on the momentum the 19-year-old has gained in recent weeks.
But instead of easily moving past her first-round opponent in front of a packed Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd that included Barack and Michelle Obama, Gauff had her hands full with 35-year-old Laura Siegemund. She dropped the first set to the German before winning the second and then holding on in a tense finish in the third for a 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 victory.
“Usually, every Grand Slam you have one bad match, and I’m glad to get that out of the way in the first round,” Gauff said.
While the crowd, clearly pulling for the American, was at times dismayed as Gauff fell behind early, it was at least entertained over the nearly three hours by some notable moments — particularly the first game of the second set, which went a remarkable 12 deuces before Gauff prevailed, earning her first break of the match and setting the table for her to eventually triumph.
Immediately after a conversation with the chair umpire about her taking time to use a towel at the 12th deuce, Siegemund committed a pair of unforced errors on forehands to give Gauff the service break she needed to settle in and play much better tennis than she did in the first set.
“It was a great mental boost,” Gauff said of winning that game, which took 28 minutes in total. “I didn’t break her in the first (set) … so I was glad to get over that hump. I think that changed the momentum of the match after that.”
Said Siegemund: “That was physically very demanding, and took a lot of energy from me that, basically, probably cost me the match.”
Siegemund’s conversation with the chair umpire in the midst of that game was one of multiple times in which the players disagreed on the pace of play between points — Gauff seemingly preferring to push it, while Siegemund wanted to take her time.
Coco Gauff expressed her frustration to the chair umpire after she thought her opponent, Laura Siegemund, was slow to get ready for her serves several times. pic.twitter.com/WjXz4bskkt
— ESPN (@espn) August 29, 2023
Gauff was clearly exasperated more than once with how much time Siegemund seemed to be taking between points. In one sequence in the third set, Gauff appeared to ace Siegemund on a first serve, but Siegemund threw up her hands, evidently signifying that she wasn’t ready. Gauff was forced to serve again and voiced her displeasure over that decision to the umpire.
“She was going over the time since the first set, and I never said anything,” Gauff said. “Obviously, the crowd started to notice that she was taking long, so you would hear people in the crowd yelling ‘time’ or doing the watch motion.”
Siegemund did admit that she has to “play faster,” particularly after it ended up costing her. After a warning that she was taking too long between points on her serve, she was hit with a point penalty in the sixth game of the third set when she went for her towel in the corner rather than prepare for Gauff’s serve. The New York crowd was particularly satisfied with the ruling, as Siegemund consistently flirted with the serve clock, routinely taking it down to the final second before beginning her motion.
That crowd was something that left Siegemund perplexed, and even in tears, after the match.
“I think it was great tennis. It was a great show. I think an audience watching a night session match cannot ask for more,” she said.
“I am very, very disappointed of the way the people treated me today,” she continued. “I think I’m a fighter. I never did anything against the audience. I stayed calm. I never made not even a gesture against the audience, and they had no respect for me. They had no respect for the way that I played. They had no respect for the player that I am.”
“Just, (the crowd) clapping when you miss the first serve, those kinds of things, I have no understanding for it. I was very disappointed. I thought I’d go out there and have a great time on Ashe. I have to say I had not a good time. And that was (because of) the audience.
“I won here two times. I left any minute of any game I played here, everything out on the court. And this is how they treat me, in a match like that? … They treated me like I was a cheater, like I was trying sneaky ways to win this match, or something. They treated me like I was a bad person.”
The docked point earned Gauff a 5-1 lead in the third set, but Siegemund didn’t go away quietly. She held serve, broke Gauff, and held again before Gauff held herself to close out the match after two hours and 51 minutes.
“I’m proud of myself,” said Siegemund, who beat Gauff in their only previous meeting, in Auckland in 2020. “I’m mentally very strong. I don’t care. I don’t need the people on my side.”
With the win over Siegemund, Gauff improved to 12-1 on hard courts this summer. That includes a win earlier this month at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, where she defeated world No. 1 and defending U.S. Open champion Iga Świątek en route to the championship. It was Gauff’s first career title at a WTA 1000 event, the second tier of tournaments after the four majors, and it signaled her as a top contender for this U.S. Open.
To get to the ultimate goal, Gauff has a long road ahead. There are four former Grand Slam champions in her quarter of the draw — including top seed Świątek, who looms as a potential quarterfinal opponent. Gauff next faces another teenager, the 16-year-old Mirra Andreeva who wowed at Wimbledon, in the second round.
“It doesn’t matter if I’m playing someone younger,” Gauff said. “It didn’t matter when I was younger, I was still beating some people older than me.”
The one bad match may be out of the way, but Gauff isn’t looking past the next one.
2023 U.S. Open odds, draw: Iga Swiatek, Novak Djokovic enter as favorites
(Top photo: Sarah Stier / Getty Images)