In a long day interrupted by an environmental protest, young American star Coco Gauff advanced on Thursday to her first US Open final, where she will face Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka, the next world number one.
At 19 years old, Gauff beat Czech Karolina Muchova 6-4 and 7-5 in the first semifinal, which was interrupted for 49 minutes by a protest in the stands by climate change activists.
With unconditional support from the New York crowd, enthralled by their new star, Gauff became the youngest American woman to reach the final of this Grand Slam since her idol Serena Williams in 1999.
“I grew up watching this tournament. I’m so happy to be in this final, but the job is not done yet,” warned Gauff as she thanked the support of the 23,000 fans at the biggest and loudest court in the world.
The jewel from Delray Beach (Florida), who lost her first Grand Slam final last year at Roland Garros, is in her best moment with a 17-1 record since last Wimbledon, where she lifted her two biggest trophies in Washington (WTA 500) and Cincinnati (WTA 1000).
The match between Gauff and Muchova, runner-up at the last Roland Garros, was abruptly interrupted by a protest in the stands by four climate change activists.
The activists, wearing t-shirts with the slogan “End Fossil Fuels,” began shouting the same message, in a protest attributed to the environmental group Extinction Rebellion (XR). After initial confusion, Gauff and Muchova withdrew to the locker room.
Three of the protesters were removed but the fourth glued his feet to the concrete floor of the court, making it difficult for security to remove him.
This incident is the latest in a series of protests by climate activists at major sporting events around the world.
“We are not protesting against the event itself, we are not protesting against tennis… We are here because we have to disrupt this public event as a last resort to draw the public’s attention to the climate emergency we face today,” activist Shayok Mukhopadhyay said in an XR statement.
The protest, which occurred when Gauff had won the first set and was leading the second 1-0, added even more pressure on the young local star.
In an atmosphere full of tension, Gauff provided another display of maturity to overcome Muchova, a player eight years her senior, fighting off five match points.
Asked about the protest, Gauff acknowledged that the long stoppage at that precise moment “was challenging” but expressed her support for the cause.
“I definitely believe in climate change,” she stressed. “I think there are things we can do better.” “Would I have preferred it didn’t happen during my match? One hundred percent, yes. I’m not going to sit here and lie,” she admitted.
“I think moments like this make history,” she said. “If that’s what they felt like they needed to do to get their voice heard, I can’t be mad at them for that.”
“I felt like (a protest of this kind) was going to happen at this tournament,” she said. “It already happened at Roland Garros, Wimbledon. So following the trend, it was definitely going to happen here. I was just hoping it wouldn’t be during my match.”
Sabalenka withstands Keys
In the second match, Aryna Sabalenka narrowly avoided the US Open having its first all-American women’s final since 2017 with a dramatic comeback.
Madison Keys, the 2017 runner-up, surged ahead of the Belarusian with a resounding 6-0 first set but eventually succumbed to Sabalenka’s firepower in two tight sets 7-6 (7/1) and 7-6 (10/5).
Keys, buoyed by the crowd, served for the match at 4-5 in the second set, when the player from Minsk began an exciting comeback fueled by power and heart.
At that moment, “I just kept reminding myself that I’d lost so many tough matches and that someday, somehow that would help me,” said Sabalenka, previously defeated in five Grand Slam semifinals.
“Then, like magic, I found my game and was able to turn it around and get the win,” she said.
With tension and emotions at their peak to complete the comeback, Sabalenka lost focus during the second set tiebreaker and prematurely began celebrating victory after going up 7-3.
“I thought it was until seven (points). I don’t know, I was just out of control. It was really crazy but I’m grateful to my team for reminding me it was until 10,” said an exhausted Sabalenka.
At 25, Sabalenka has played five consecutive Grand Slam semifinals, winning her first major title at the Australian Open earlier this year.
That consistency will allow her to unseat Iga Swiatek as world number one next Monday.