Coco Gauff navigates delay created by environmental protestors, reaches US Open final

NEW YORK — Coco Gauff has been on such a fast track to the top of women’s tennis that it’s often taken for granted how much she’s accomplished at the age of 19.

In this sport, winning WTA titles and reaching the top-10 is important. But winning Grand Slams is everything.

And on Saturday, Gauff will have a chance to forever end the questions about when she’s going to break that threshold.

Gauff, the No. 6 seed, reached her first US Open final after beating No. 10 Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic on Thursday night, 6-4, 7-5, and will await the winner of the second semifinal between No. 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka and No. 17 Madison Keys.

Gauff not only had to overcome a difficult opponent Thursday, she had to survive a potential momentum-killing delay early in the second set that stretched for approximately 50 minutes when three environmental protestors began yelling from the upper deck. Though police were able to quickly remove two of them, one had glued his feet to the floor, necessitating an entire team of security to handle the disturbance.

Coco Gauff celebrates a winner against Karolina Muchova.

Coco Gauff celebrates a winner against Karolina Muchova.

Fortunately, neither player seemed too bothered by the delay as both seemed to settle back into the match immediately.

Though Gauff reached the French Open final last year, there was a sense throughout 2023 that her game had plateaued. After a decisive quarterfinal loss in Paris to eventual champion Iga Swiatek and then a first-round exit at Wimbledon to Sofia Kenin, Gauff overhauled her coaching team by hiring former ATP pro Pere Riba and Brad Gilbert, the ESPN commentator who coached Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick to Grand Slam titles.

With a new team in place to start the North American hard court season, Gauff called it a rebuilding phase. But immediately she began the best run of her career, winning the Washington event and then adding the title in Cincinnati two weeks later, beating Swiatek for the first time in eight tries.

When the US Open draw came out, it appeared Gauff was headed for yet another Swiatek showdown in the quarterfinals. But when Jelena Ostapenko upset Swiatek in the fourth round, a huge obstacle in Gauff’s path was cleared. She now enters the final having won 17 of her last 18 matches.

The match against Muchova, whom she beat in the Cincinnati final, showed some of the maturity that Gauff has gained since the coaching change.

Starting the match with a series of high, looping ground strokes that targeted Muchova’s backhand and helped negate the effectiveness of her slice, Gauff seemed to possess both calm and clarity about her gameplay.

Muchova, who lost in the French Open final earlier this year, played with tape on her right forearm in the quarterfinals and showed up Thursday wearing a black arm sleeve to cover it. But whatever soreness she was feeling in the arm paled in comparison to the nerves she seemed to be fighting early in the match.

While Gauff played steadily, Muchova struggled to execute in their baseline exchanges and found no more luck when she approached the net. Though Muchova’s game picked up a bit after falling behind 5-1, Gauff was steady enough to finish off the first set as Muchova added three more unforced errors to finish with 17 against just three winners.

Muchova played more characteristically in the second set and used the variety in her shots to ask Gauff more questions than she faced in the first. But Muchova unraveled while serving at 3-4, and for a moment it appeared like that would be decisive. After missing a routine overhead smash at 15-15 and then double faulting at 40-30, Muchova handed Gauff a chance to break — which she did when Muchova buried a backhand into the net.

Though Gauff couldn’t convert on her first attempt to finish as Muchova fought off a match point and eventually broke serve, it only delayed the outcome — which seemed to be the theme of the night. Serving at 5-6, Muchova began the game with a double fault and had to fight off four more match points to stay alive. But Gauff was able to win the lengthiest exchange of the match with a running forehand winner to give herself one more shot to finish things off.

She took it this time, forcing a miss from Muchova and raised her fist in the air to celebrate her first Slam final on home soil.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coco Gauff defeats Karolina Muchova after delay, reaches US Open final

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