Coco Gauff was all of 19 years old. And though already a bona fide star—offering a harmonious marriage of power, speed, athleticism, strategy and poise—it would not have been hard for her to hear the salon getting restless, awaiting a breakthrough once deemed inevitable.
As she took the court, she was barely two months past Wimbledon, where she flamed out in the first round. And working with a new coach, Brad Gilbert, whose sterling reputation preceded him but whose addition to her team—causing her parents to take a backseat—added pressure.
She was playing in the U.S. Open, her “home major” and last chance to salvage what, until then, had been a meh season. The sixth seed, she had won her first five matches, triggering optimism. And she was leading in her semifinal against No. 10 seed Karolína Muchová when she looked up and saw a disruption in the stands.
A tennis player like Gauff prepares for all sorts of potential scenarios: an opponent playing at top form; rain; her forehand deserting her, as had happened in the past. But nobody would have planned for this one. When she asked what was going on, she learned that, in the upper recesses of the stadium, a climate change activist had glued his feet to the ground, causing a delay.
How do you maintain your momentum? How do you shoo away worries that the break helped your opponent? But Gauff did. She held her poise and won.
Later, she was asked about the delay. “I believe in climate change,” she replied. “Moments like this are history-defining. I wasn’t pissed at the protesters. I always speak about preaching what you believe in. It was done in a peaceful way, so I can’t get too mad at it. … I was hoping it wasn’t in my match, but it is what it is. If that’s what they felt they needed to do to get their voices heard, I can’t really get upset at it.”
In that unscripted moment, Gauff revealed more about herself than any stroke could have. By the final, it seemed almost scripted that she would win her first major singles title. And Gauff did just that, taking down Aryna Sabalenka, who was soon to be No. 1 in the world rankings. Though, again, it would take a reset, overcoming a lousy first set and then upping her level. At once, Gauff broke through and conveyed an unmistakable sense that she was just warming up.