Coco Gauff channeling her inner Serena Williams at U.S. Open

No no no.

The game would not escape her. The set would not escape her. The moment would not pass.

Coco Gauff had used her range and speed to tie up a shot from Zhang Shuai and return it with her bread-and-butter backhand late in the second set of their fourth-round game at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Sunday. Zhang responded with a forehand volley at the net. It came up short.

As cheers from a rowdy crowd swirled around her, Gauff looked at her coaches and supporters and waved her right index finger in a classic dikembe mutombo move.

No no no. She couldn’t be stopped.

Later, to reinforce her point, the 18-year-old Floridian copied a move popularized by City Girls rap/hip-hop duo JT and Yung Miami and ran her long-nailed fingers down her throat. It wasn’t a throat cut, she said afterwards, but a way of saying, period, that’s the end of the discussion.

Four points later, the discussion ended when Zhang hit a backhand. Gauff was a 7-5, 7-5 winner and first-time quarterfinalist at the US Open, reinforcing her surprise second-place finish at the French Open three months ago.

The one-time prodigy who reached the last 16 at Wimbledon three years ago has grown into a thoughtful young woman who is not above giggling at old media outlets who knew nothing about City Girls or the ‘period’ gesture. Gauff, who is also world no. 1 in doubles but lost here in the first round with partner Jessica Pegula, is more confident in her exceptional talent and more comfortable with her place on the court and in the world.

As a child she had a poster of Serena Williams on her bedroom wall. Now she is poised to replace Williams as one of the sport’s most prominent faces.

Coco Gauff scores with a return against Shuai Zhang on Sunday.

Coco Gauff scores with a return against Shuai Zhang on Sunday.

(Julia Nikhinson/Associated Press)

Coco Gauff scores a return in her win over Shuai Zhang on Sunday.

Coco Gauff scores a return in her win over Shuai Zhang on Sunday.

(Eduardo Munoz Alvarez / Associated Press)

“I think that was the hope and I think she has the maturity and ability to do that,” said ESPN commentator Pam Shriver. “To be the face of tennis in the same spirit as Serena, it’s so difficult to follow someone who has won 23 majors. And she obviously has to win one to really be that. But she has all the presence and even more off the pitch. She’s a different personality than Serena, but very similar in her fight, in her competitiveness.”

The crowd recognized this and chanted her name. She had to work hard to stay in the zone and avoid smiling because it was so unreal.

“I told my team after the game that for some reason I’m so much more lively. I found a cold,” said Gauff, who will play France’s Caroline Garcia in the quarterfinals on Tuesday.

“Sometimes when the moment is right, I don’t even know how I’m going to react after winning a point. I wasn’t thinking about Mutombo. I feel like a wall out there, she pushed me so hard. It’s like, ‘You can’t get past me today.'”

Gauff didn’t drop a set here, but she had to come back twice on Sunday to keep that intact. Zhang had taken a 5-4 lead in the opening set, but Gauff held serve in the next game, earning a break for a 6-5 lead and converting her second set point. Zhang, the oldest woman in the fourth round here at 33, broke Gauff’s serve to take a 5-3 lead in the second set and had a set point in the ninth game before Gauff pushed back and won the last four games.

“I think I’ve always fought for every point, but I think I do it smarter,” she said. “I think that just comes from learning from the same mistakes over and over again.”

Early tennis success is no guarantee of long-term prosperity. Naomi Osaka, who won her first Grand Slam singles title at 20 and her fourth a few months after turning 23, has struggled with depression and anxiety and has fallen to 44th in the rankings. She lost here in the first round. Ashleigh Barty retired from tennis in 2014 to clear her head and returned to win three Slam titles before surprisingly retiring at 25 this year while being world No. 1. The demands and pressure can be overwhelming.

What Gauff needs most, even more than a stronger second serve and improved forehand grip, is air to breathe. She needs trusted people around her who work for her and don’t see her as a food menu.

She seems to be enjoying a stable situation. She lives with her parents in Delray Beach, Florida; Her father, Corey, played basketball in Georgia State, and her mother, Candi, competed in track and field in Florida State. She has two younger brothers. She is represented by Team 8 agency, co-founded by Roger Federer.

“She’s so considerate for someone so young and I think that’s a huge credit to her parents and family life,” Shriver said. “It just feels like she has such a solid anchor between the generations of her family, her siblings and her team.”

Gauff said she couldn’t speak for other players but said her family has never been a burden on her. “I sure think I felt the pressure. I certainly felt the expectations,” she said. “But I also think what’s in my head, when I go out on the pitch I feel like all of that goes away. I’m just lucky that I’m able to find that mindset.

“I hope I can stay in that mindset, but I can’t speak for the future.”

Is this a bright future? Yes Yes Yes. Coco Gauff channeling her inner Serena Williams at U.S. Open

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