Coco Gauff did everything she could. After losing the first set and trailing 4-2 in the second to Anastasija Sevastova, the 16-year-old fought back to force a decider in her first-round match at the 2020 US Open. She staved off three match points in the final game at Louis Armstrong Stadium.
For moments, it felt like many of Gauff’s previous major matches when she found herself down but clawed her way back with hard-fought points and emphatic yells of “come on!”
But something looked — and sounded — different Monday. Gauff, currently ranked No. 51 in the world, didn’t have thousands of adoring fans in the crowd chanting her name and willing her to a victory. Most of the match was played in silence, only disrupted by the sounds of planes flying overhead and the squeal of the nearby 7 train. The absence of the crowd was more apparent with each point and every labored shrug of her hands. For Gauff, there was just a handful of spectators, all of whom were wearing masks, and the doubts that seemed to be creeping in.
And those doubts she couldn’t silence.
As she hit the ball into the net to end the match after just over two hours of play, she lifted her hands in frustration and looked stunned as she walked off the court. She grabbed her racket bag and made her way to the exit as quickly as she could. Instead of staging another Cinderella run, Gauff posted her earliest Grand Slam exit since starting on the WTA Tour last year. She advanced to the fourth round at Wimbledon in 2019 and the Australian Open this past January, as well as reaching the Round of 32 in New York last year.
“I think an American crowd would have lifted Coco and helped her to win that match,” said Chris Evert, an 18-time major champion and ESPN analyst, during the postmatch broadcast. “She would have won the match if she was playing in front of 22,000 people who are cheering for her. Saying that, Anastasija played the match of her life.
“She just really defused a lot of the power that Coco had. The atmosphere was flat in the stands, but on the court you could still sense the electricity and the tension and you still knew that these players were playing for a Grand Slam title.”
Both players knew what was at stake, even with the strange environment. But Gauff seemingly didn’t have the extra focus she often does, committing 13 double faults and 41 unforced errors in the match. Sevastova, the No. 31 seed, capitalized on many of Gauff’s mistakes.
During the 2019 US Open, Gauff opened play on Louis Armstrong Stadium against Anastasia Potapova. Much like Monday, she lost the first set 6-3 but came back in the second. The crowd of 14,000 fans — many of whom were enamored by the young American thanks to her run at the All-England Club — roared in ovation and jumped to their feet at the most crucial moments. Gauff seemed to thrive in the environment and love the pressure of playing on such a big stage. She won the third set, 6-4.
Playing on the same court during her second-round match against Timea Babos, she again needed three sets to advance. The crowd was deafening in the third set with “Let’s go, Coco!” chants during changeovers, and got even louder when she punched her ticket into the third round to face defending champion Naomi Osaka. “This is just the beginning, I promise,” she said in her postmatch interview, with the poise and confidence of a seasoned veteran.
There will be no such “Cocomania” this year in Queens.
“I don’t really think so,” Gauff said after the match, when asked if fans could have helped her. “I think I compete just as hard with fans or not. I could have played better today.”
Gauff had some experience playing in front of empty courts in recent weeks since the WTA Tour resumed following a six-month shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, first at the Top Seed Open and then the Western & Southern Open. She made it to the semifinals in Kentucky but lost in the first round last week. Still, she hadn’t played in a stadium the size of Armstrong, and that might have been too much of an obstacle to overcome.
Will other star players falter without the support of those in the stands? Will lesser-known or younger players, more familiar with playing on outer courts with limited and often distracted crowds, feel more comfortable? Time will soon tell.
Gauff will now focus on doubles with partner Caty McNally and attempt to salvage her trip to New York. The pair, collectively known as McCoco, advanced to the quarterfinals in Melbourne in January and have won two titles together. Gauff has high hopes for their partnership before she switches her focus to the upcoming French Open.
“I mean, I’m still in doubles here, so I’ll be here hopefully till the end,” she said. “That’s the goal. Then off to Europe we go.”