NEW YORK -- Last year, after Serena Williams played the final match of her career at the US Open, it was fair to wonder who would carry that success forward for American tennis.
One year later, 19-year-old Coco Gauff is in the US Open final.
She’s the youngest American woman to reach that threshold since Serena in 1999. With much of the attention on older sister Venus that year, 17-year-old Serena defeated Martina Hingis in straight sets.
US Open semifinal results:
“It means a lot to me,” Gauff said after defeating Karolina Muchova 6-4, 7-5 on Thursday night. “I don’t think I’m carrying American tennis. I don’t think I will. Serena is Serena. She’s the GOAT. I hope to do half of what she did.”
While Gauff -- she’s won 17 of 18 matches -- has been the best player this summer, Aryna Sabalenka has been the best across the season, beginning with her first major title, at the Australian Open. She leads the Race to the WTA Finals in Cancun and will take over the World No.1 ranking from Iga Swiatek on Monday.
That’s your classic irresistible force vs. immovable object. Speaking of which, Alex Macpherson and Greg Garber make this case for each player ahead of Saturday’s final (4 p.m. ET).
This is a phenomenally talented athlete who early in her career shrank from those important moments. Fast forward to somewhere past midnight Thursday, when Sabalenka was considerably larger than life.
After losing the first set to Madison Keys 6-0, she staged a memorable comeback, winning back-to-back tiebreaks to prevail 0-6, 7-6 (1), 7-6 [10-5]. It was only the third time in the Open Era the player who lost the opening set of a major semifinal came back to win.
“Yeah, it was crazy,” Sabalenka told reporters. “I was all over the place. I was just, like, `What can I do? She’s playing unbelievable, just crushing everything.’ I had zero control in the match.
“You just have to keep trying, keep staying there, and keep pushing it. Maybe you’ll be able to turn around this game. Lucky me, somehow magically, I don’t know how I was able to turn around this game.”
Sabalenka won 14 of the last 19 points.
But, Alex, here’s what was most impressive to me: Previously, Sabalenka had been spotty in Grand Slam semifinals, losing five of six. The exception was this year’s Australian Open, but then it happened again at Roland Garros and Wimbledon -- when she blew big leads.
The nature of this victory will give her sustenance going forward. Sabalenka heads into this match on Arthur Ashe Stadium knowing she spotted an in-form player a one-set lead -- and somehow managed to survive and advance. It wasn’t magic, it was belief. And now she’s in position to take two of the season’s four majors.
The head-to-head record is trending in the right direction, too. Although Gauff won three of the first four matches against Sabalenka, 25, was a straight-sets winner in those quarterfinals at the BNP Paribas Open.
“Honestly, I would say that she played much better than in that match,” Sabalenka said. “She improved a lot. So it’s a different player.
“Going into this final, I think I just have to focus on myself and prepare myself for another fight. What else can you do? You just have to be there and you have to fight for it.”
Sabalenka is the first woman to reach the final of the season’s first and last Grand Slams since Angelique Kerber in 2016. And, like Gauff, Sabalenka has a Serena Williams statistic. The last player to win 23 of her first 26 major matches in a season was Williams in 2016.
For the first time in her career, Sabalenka has won 50 matches.
I think it will be 51 on Saturday. -- Greg Garber
Assessing Gauff's progress has often been hampered by the hyperbole that, through no fault of her own, has accompanied her ever since her 2019 breakthrough. But if you strip away the over-the-top predictions of greatness that surrounded her as a 15-year-old, or the exaggerated criticisms of her game earlier this year, her trajectory has been remarkably steady.
In four years on tour, Gauff has taken few head-scratching bad losses or even compiled a notable losing streak. At no point has her ranking threatened to drop significantly. That includes this year's "slump", which was more of a natural brief plateau in her development.
In any case, Gauff -- and her new team of Brad Gilbert and Pere Riba -- have rectified that quickly. Her much-discussed forehand might never be as lethal as her backhand, but improved depth already means it's less attackable. Her serve, reflexes and speed remain astonishing, and that adds up to a potent blend of defense and offense.
That precise recipe could spell trouble for Sabalenka. The incoming World No.1 can look untouchable off the first strike. But landing that level of power shots is one thing against opponents who lack either footspeed or power of their own. For the first time this fortnight, she'll face a player who can pressure her with both.
Gauff has also looked significantly more at ease than Sabalenka in Flushing Meadows, even when falling behind against Laura Siegemund and Elise Mertens in early rounds. She attributed this to cutting through the chatter, too.
"I learned a lot from the past," she said after defeating Muchova. "I think I put too much in the moment. I play good tennis when I'm most relaxed. I think [in the 2022 Roland Garros final], I was more focused on the expectations."
Six months ago, Sabalenka routed Gauff 6-4, 6-0 in the Indian Wells quarterfinals. But every other time they've played has been a tightly contested, entertaining stylistic contrast. Expect another, and for Gauff to rise to the occasion in the most important moments. -- Alex Macpherson