Coco Gauff, the American 16-year-old who generated buzz and roars by winning two rounds at last year’s United States Open, was defeated in the first round on Monday 6-3, 5-7, 6-4 amid the silence by Anastasija Sevastova.
Gauff was back in Louis Armstrong Stadium, the same show court where she defeated Anastasia Potapova and Timea Babos in 2019 before losing in the third round to No. 1 Naomi Osaka. But this year, with no fans allowed at the U.S. Open, Armstrong Stadium was all but empty as Gauff struggled to recapture the same form.
She double faulted 13 times and had her serve broken seven times against Sevastova, the No. 31 seed from Latvia. Though she avoided double faults in the final game of the third set, she was unable to avoid a series of forehand errors.
Sevastova is a crafty veteran who is adept at mixing spins and tactics and has an often-devastating backhand drop shot. Though she has struggled in 2020, both before and after the extended tour hiatus because of the coronavirus pandemic, she has had her best results at the U.S. Open, reaching the quarterfinals in 2016 and 2017 and the semifinals in 2018.
She battled herself mentally on Monday, surrendering a winning position with a 4-2 lead in the second set with a series of errors and frequently cast withering glances at Ronald Schmidt, her coach and boyfriend, who was sitting in the vacant stadium.
Gauff had internal tussles of her own, putting a hand to her head repeatedly after double faults. But both players stabilized in the final set with the final game providing the only break of serve.
“I wish I would play like this when I was 16 years old,” Sevastova said admiringly of Gauff. “Great player. Nothing more to say. I think she maybe started a bit slower than me, but she was getting better as the match went on. That’s so important I think in tennis.”
Gauff started this season auspiciously, upsetting Osaka in the fourth round of the Australian Open in January before losing in the quarterfinals in three sets to American compatriot Sofia Kenin, the eventual champion.
She spent the forced break at home in Delray Beach, Fla., practicing with her father Corey and her co-coach Jean-Christophe Faurel. She then played a strong comeback tournament at the Top Seed Open in Lexington, Ky., defeating two seeded players — Aryna Sabalenka and Ons Jabeur — in taut three-set tussles before losing in the semifinals to Jennifer Brady, the eventual champion.
But she was unable to produce consistent tennis in the two-tournament bubble in New York, losing 6-1, 6-3 in the first round of the Western & Southern Open to Maria Sakkari, the No. 13 seed, and then losing to Sevastova in their first meeting.
It seems premature to speculate about a sophomore slump. But Gauff’s serve and forehand have been less than dependable in recent weeks with double faults and errors piling up. Sevastova repeatedly played to Gauff’s forehand on important points and that included the final game, when Gauff made four unforced errors off that wing, including the final stroke of the match, which landed in the net on Sevastova’s fourth match point.
“It’s surprising that Coco’s serve was not retooled more during pause of play,” said Pam Shriver, a former U.S. Open singles finalist who is now an ESPN analyst, in a post on Twitter. “Toss too high. Toss too erratic. Pause on take-back too long. Not enough weight transfer.”
Until Monday, Sevastova had not won a singles match in a regular tour event this season, going 0-7. But her only other victory in 2020 was a big one: coming against Serena Williams in Latvia’s 3-2 defeat to the United States in a Fed Cup qualifying round match. That was Williams’s first singles loss in Fed Cup, which, it should be pointed out, she has played sparingly through the decades.
But when in form, Sevastova’s unusual game can bewitch the opposition, and she deployed her arsenal of pace changes and drop shots effectively against Gauff, one of the fastest players on tour even at her young age.
“She’s moving so well, it’s tough to finish the point, » Sevastova said. “She hits amazing backhand. Forehand for sure could be better. Still, it’s uncomfortable to play her.”
But surely much more comfortable without a packed stadium creating a ruckus after every Gauff winner. The atmosphere was transcendent in Armstrong Stadium in 2019, but the only loud noises on Monday were provided by the planes passing regularly overhead. It was a stark opening-day reminder of how different this U.S. Open is from its predecessors.
The reassuring news for Gauff as she returns to the practice court is that she should have so many U.S. Opens still to play with the crowds in her corner.
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