NEW YORK — The grounds at the US Open were noticeably quiet on Saturday morning. It was the first day of the post-Serena Williams era, and it felt as if the air had been taken out of the site.
Ahead of Williams’ third-round match against Ajla Tomljanovic, there had been a palpable buzz everywhere — in the nosebleed seats at Arthur Ashe Stadium, in the lines at the food court, even waiting in traffic. Thousands gathered to catch a glimpse of the 23-time major champion during her practice sessions, and her matches became the hottest ticket in town.
But then she lost and, just like that, her legendary career was over. Even Rafael Nadal’s (albeit lopsided) match on Saturday night against Richard Gasquet at Ashe felt flat.
But something happened on Sunday. Or rather someone.
Playing in the second match of the afternoon on Ashe, 18-year-old Coco Gauff faced a tough battle against Zhang Shuai, and with every fiercely contested rally and feat of athleticism, the crowd grew louder and louder. There were, “Let’s go, Co-co” chants and frequent reminders from the chair umpire for silence.
“It feels insane. I mean, Ashe Stadium chanting my name?” Gauff said during her on-court interview after the match. “I was trying not to smile on the bench on the changeover. I was trying to stay in the moment.”
Gauff ultimately won the match 7-5, 7-5, becoming the youngest American woman to advance to the quarterfinals at the event since 2009, and the first teenage woman since Victoria Azarenka, also in 2009, to reach the round at two majors during the same season. (Gauff advanced to the French Open final earlier this year.)
While three matches stand in the way of her first Grand Slam title — starting with a very tricky quarterfinal clash against the red-hot Caroline Garcia on Tuesday night — it is clear she is one of the game’s next big superstars.
And she’s not the only up-and-comer to reenergize the crowds this fortnight.
On Monday afternoon, Frances Tiafoe pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the tournament with a 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, victory over Nadal, the 22-time major champion, to advance to the second major quarterfinals of his career.
The 24-year-old American has long charmed crowds with his fearless play, powerful hitting and entertaining style. In the fourth-round clash, he found a way to put it all together at his home Slam. While Nadal remains one of the most popular players on tour, Tiafoe converted the audience as the match progressed, and by the end, everyone was on their feet as Tiafoe secured the biggest win of his career.
Around the same time, over on Louis Armstrong court, No. 1-ranked Iga Swiatek, the two-time French Open champion, advanced to the quarterfinals on Monday with a three-set comeback win over Jule Niemeier. After falling in the first set, the 21-year-old won 12 of the final 16 games of the match.
Later in the night, 21-year-old Jannik Sinner became the youngest person since Novak Djokovic in 2008 to reach the quarterfinals at all four majors when he held off Ilya Ivashka in five sets.
In the early hours of Tuesday morning, 19-year-old Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz defeated 2014 US Open champion Marin Cilic 6-4, 3-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 to advance to the quarters, yet again, in New York. He had a surprise run to the same round in 2021 and has become a force on tour — and a fan favorite — since. A loyal group of supporters stayed in the stands, chanting his name and waving Spanish flags, until the very end of his fourth-round match, well after 2 a.m. ET.
And of course, there’s Nick Kyrgios, the 27-year-old Australian with seemingly limitless skill and electrifying showmanship. After years of not quite living up to the expectations and getting as much attention for his unpredictable antics as his talent, he reached his first major final at Wimbledon in July.
Now, he’s into his first US Open quarterfinals after a statement victory over Daniil Medvedev on Sunday. After Nadal’s loss, Kyrgios is the betting favorite to win the title. While everything seems to be coming together for him on the court, his personal life is not without controversy. He was accused of domestic assault by a former partner and has a hearing related to the allegation in October.
It seems tennis has finally reached a changing-of-the-guard moment. It has been anticipated for years, as the biggest names have been getting older, but the time is apparently now.
In addition to Williams’ retirement, Roger Federer, 41, has been sidelined for over a year as he recovers from right knee surgery, Djokovic, 35, is playing a limited schedule due to his unvaccinated status and Venus Williams, 42, has played sparingly. While Nadal, 36, has won two major titles this year, he has dealt with a slew of injuries over the past 13 months and was handed his earliest Grand Slam exit since 2017 on Monday.
This is just the second major since the start of the 2005 season to not have Nadal, Djokovic or Nadal in the quarterfinals. There hasn’t been a US Open quarterfinal round without the “Big Three” or Williams since 2003. No one remaining in either draw has ever won the US Open before, and Swiatek is the only Grand Slam champion left.
“I think Nick playing great tennis is great for tennis,” said Tiafoe, while wearing a “GOAT” sweatshirt featuring images of Williams, after his win on Monday. “You see him packing stadiums when he’s playing singles, doubles, whatever. Alcaraz is a great personality. Sinner. Myself. People get behind me …
“It’s cool to see a new era.”
There have been several players who looked like they might break through in recent years. Naomi Osaka seemed to be a sure thing with her four major titles, but she has struggled on and off the court over the past 14 months. She lost in the first round in New York last week.
Medvedev defeated Djokovic to win the US Open in 2021 and took over the No. 1 ranking earlier this year, but he came well short of defending his title this week.
A number of women have won Grand Slam titles in the past several years since Williams temporarily left the tour on maternity leave in 2021, but almost all have been unable to achieve consistent success after their breakthrough moment.
And winning isn’t the only thing that makes a superstar. These younger players have the “it” factor of charisma and authenticity, and it’s no surprise to see them filling stadiums and earning new fans with every victory.
Gauff’s popularity continues to transcend tennis. She has become a voice for societal issues, delivering an impassioned speech at a Black Lives Matter rally in 2020 and writing “End gun violence” on the camera at the French Open shortly after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.
Before this year, Gauff had never won a match on Ashe. In 2022, she has played every match of the tournament on the court. Her first three were scheduled directly ahead of Williams.
That marquee placement wasn’t lost on her.
“My first round I was shocked that I was being put on Ashe,” Gauff said Sunday. “Then it happened again the second round. At that point, I figured maybe it would keep happening, especially when Serena was playing.
“This must be like a perfect lineup for viewers. You have me playing first, closing out with the GOAT. That’s crazy.”
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