Coco Gauff goalposts move as American star no longer ‘the baby’ in rival eyes

Coco Gauff had a plan before the start of the 2023 season. Stop being a teenage prodigy and start being a grand slam champion. The first tag was easy to obtain for the American world No. 3 who first came into the public consciousness after rocking up at Wimbledon at the tender age of 15 in 2019, only to promptly dumped the five-time winner Venus Williams out of the All England Club competition in the first round. Some introduction.

She would go on to reach the last 16 that year, cementating her name in SW19 folklore ahead of what promises to be a developing story.

Such is the talent at Gauff’s disposal, it was only a matter of when as opposed to if she would eventually become a grand slam champion. She would fall at the final hurdle at Roland Garros in 2022, losing the French Open final to Iga Swiatek in straight sets.

Her Grand Slam form this year, which included a fourth-round exit at the Australian Open, a quarterfinal run at the French Open and a wimpish first-round defeat at Wimbledon, did not particularly suggest that silverware would be on the cards at Flushing Meadows, but good form during the US hardcourt season set the teenager up for the biggest win of her life in New York last month.

Writing in a column for BBC Sport at the start of the year, Gauff made her intentions abundantly clear with a remarkable maturity way beyond her years.

She wrote: “Starting another season as an established pro feels pretty weird. I’m still only 18 but I don’t feel like the new kid any more. I feel I’m ready to leave behind the tag of ‘teenage phenomenon’. Now it is time to be known as a Grand Slam champion.

“I feel like all the players still call me a baby, and usually I’m still one of the youngest in the draw, but I’ve been around for a while. My main ambition for 2023 is winning a Grand Slam title. That’s the biggest goal.”

Fast forward 11 months and that goal has been realised thanks to a come-from-behind victory against Aryna Sabalenka at the US Open.

Mission accomplished. The challenge now for Gauff is maintaining it.

With one major trophy now on the mantlepiece, the expectation – as it has been from the start – is that Gauff will now go on to dominate women’s tennis. But there are a few other women around who will have plenty to say about that.

The American followed up her US Open exploits by reaching the China Open semi-final, but she was put to the sword by Swiatek, who cruised to a 6-2, 6-3 victory.

It was a similar tale in Cancun at the WTA Finals, where Gauff once more reached the final four, but this time it was her compatriot and doubles playing partner Jessica Pegula who inflicted the defeat. Gauff had replaced Pegula as world No. 3 with her triumph in New York, but here was the Buffelo-born star reminding her fellow American that she will not be getting everything her own way now just because she is a grand slam winner.

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Gauff’s reality check draws a parallel with Carlos Alcaraz, who was tipped for domination in the men’s game after defeating Novak Djokovic in the Wimbledon final, but has found the going to be pretty tough since.

But if anyone has the mental fortitude to keep herself at the top it is surely Gauff, who revealed her ambition to become the world’s greatest tennis player on TV when she was just 12 years old. If repeating Grand Slam success and building upon it is the target, she will have to beat the best players on the planet to do it.

A champion for sure. A baby no more.

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