NEW YORK — Coco Gauff became the envy of all of her friends when Sloane Stephens came to her 10th birthday party at a water park. They couldn’t believe a professional tennis player was there with them.
At the time, Gauff was training with Stephens’ childhood coach and the two had become friendly. Over the next few years, they would cross paths and see each other at parties and family get-togethers. Gauff looked up to the now-28-year-old Stephens, and Stephens followed Gauff’s rapid development.
Gauff watched in awe as Stephens won the US Open title at Arthur Ashe Stadium in 2017, and Gauff played in the junior final at the tournament the next day hoping to do the same.
On Wednesday, the two faced each other for the first time during the second round of the tournament at Ashe in the featured prime-time slot.
The 17-year-old Gauff called it a “full-circle moment” ahead of the match, and for tennis fans, it was a fascinating clash between two women who have both, at varying times, been considered America’s great hope to fill the gigantic shoes of Venus and Serena Williams. It’s the first US Open in Gauff’s lifetime without either of the Williams sisters competing.
And in the much-hyped generational battle, Stephens made it clear the future will have to wait, a little bit longer, at least, as she dominated Gauff 6-4, 6-2 in just over an hour.
As the remnants of Hurricane Ida poured down heavily, and noisily, on the closed roof above, the match initially had the makings of an instant classic as they traded games early and were tied at 4-all in the first set. But behind her blistering forehand and dominant first serve, Stephens’ experience prevailed. She took the next two games, and Gauff never had much of a chance to get back in the match.
Stephens clinically won the final five games of the second set to clinch the victory.
Gauff was dejected as she walked to the net, but Stephens quickly embraced her and told her she loved her.
“I’m really proud of the player she is, and the girl she is and the woman she’s becoming,” Stephens told ESPN’s Pam Shriver on the court moments later.
Gauff became a household name during her unexpected fourth-round run at Wimbledon in 2019. She was a seemingly fearless 15-year-old qualifier who defeated Venus Williams in the opening round and came back after facing two match points in the second set against Polona Hercog on Centre Court in the third round.
Gauff won over fans around the world with her gutsy play and her gregarious personality. She was immediately heralded as the sport’s next big thing.
Since then, she has rapidly ascended in the rankings and won two WTA singles titles, and three in doubles, and reached her first major quarterfinals at the French Open earlier this year. She is currently ranked a career-high No. 23. And a major title is often discussed as a foregone conclusion: Not if, but when.
But that destiny will have to wait until at least the 2022 season.
Stephens didn’t burst onto the scene quite like Gauff did, but she too was a talented teenager with lofty expectations. Stephens reached the US Open junior doubles title as a 14-year-old and made the semifinals of the prodigious Orange Bowl that same year. It would take her a few more years to become a Gauff-level phenomenon, but Stephens eventually did with an upset victory heard round the world over Serena Williams in the quarterfinals of the 2013 Australian Open.
Stephens was 19 and suddenly was the country’s rising star. But while Gauff’s trajectory has been largely upward, Stephens is perhaps the best example that progress isn’t always a straight line. Her ranking had dropped to No. 957 prior to her US Open triumph, as she was sidelined for 11 months with a stress fracture in her right foot. She followed up her maiden Grand Slam title with a run to the final at Roland Garros the following season.
She hasn’t advanced past the quarterfinals at a major since, but with wins over Gauff and former US Open finalist Madison Keys at this tournament thus far, she looks more than capable of making another deep run.
“I’m really happy with the two wins,” Stephens said after the match. “I played good tennis to get them. Yeah, I mean, it’s still only the third round of a Slam, so I have to keep going. But it’s nice to know that I was able to get those two wins with all the pressure and outer things happening.”
Stephens will next take on three-time major winner Angelique Kerber or Anhelina Kalinina on Friday, and a potential clash with defending champion Naomi Osaka looms in the round of 16. Stephens holds a 2-0 record over Osaka, but the two haven’t played since 2018.
For Gauff, Wednesday’s result was disappointing and marked an earlier exit than she had expected from herself.
“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 [of] Slams, I’ve lost to players that have gone to the quarters or won, eventually, so it shows that I’m there.”
Gauff will now turn her attention to doubles with longtime partner Caty McNally. The No. 11-seeded pair will look to improve upon their two previous major quarterfinal runs.
Gauff was understandably not pleased with Wednesday’s outcome, but she certainly impressed the cool girl who came to her childhood birthday party.
“It’s just been really nice to see her game kind of evolve and the things that she’s doing, like how she’s able to turn so much defense into offense and kind of do those movements,” Stephens said. “She is great at the net. She has a really great all-around game. It’s been really nice to see.
“She’s different from a lot of the up-and-coming players we’re seeing now that are just super hard hitting, not much variety. She has a lot of variety.”