Teenage sensation Cori ‘Coco’ Gauff has reached her first WTA Tour singles final at the Upper Austria Ladies Linz, having lost in the final round of qualifying earlier in the week and defeating Andrea Petkovic, 6-4 6-4, in Saturday’s semi-final.
This is definitely unreal, my first final on the WTA. Linz is my special place Cori Gauff
Such is life for the 15-year old American, who couldn’t believe her good fortune when Maria Sakkari withdrew from the main draw with an injury, offering up her place to a lucky loser – Coco.
“This is crazy, I thought I was out of the tournament in qualifying,” beamed the American.
“This is definitely unreal, my first final on the WTA. Linz is my special place.
“Not even in juniors did I ever get into something as a lucky loser – now I’m in the final!
“I think it’s my biggest ever win against a high rank opponent this year or in my whole career.”
Now she is hitting new milestones at every turn as she rises rapidly up the rankings, demonstrating what a rare talent she is.
With a maturity well beyond her years, Gauff is already an accomplished, well-rounded player but what sets her apart from the rest of the field is that she has the rare quality of keeping her head under pressure and finds a way to win.
She has already caused upsets since bursting onto the scene at Wimbledon a few months ago, toppling Stefanie Voegele and Kateryna Kozlova to advance into the last 8 in Linz where she topped it all on Friday by defeating top-tenner and WTA Finals contender Kiki Bertens.
Gauff is the youngest woman to reach a WTA Final in 15 years, when Czech Republic’s Nicole Vaidisova won the Tashkent Open in 2004, and her win over Petkovic sees her move inside the top 80 having ranked 686 at the end of 2018, as well as earning her a main-draw place at the Australian Open in January.
She was made to work hard for it from the very start against Petkovic, after losing her opening service game, she struck back instantly to level the set.
Gauff has a habit of making the best out of every opportunity she gets, and it took her 91 minutes to find a way to beat the three-time Linz semi-finalist Petkovic, who has been ranked as high as No 9 in the world.
The American faced 10 break points during the encounter, and was able to fend off 9 of them, winning an excellent 71 percent of points on her second serve to work her way past Petkovic in difficult moments.
In her first singles final, Gauff will face either 2017 Roland Garros champion Jelena Ostapenko or last year’s Linz runner-up Ekaterina Alexandrova, the No 8 seed.
It was Petkovic who claimed the first break of the match, taking Gauff’s opening service game with beautiful play off the backhand side.
The young American, however, struck back straight away, firing a stunning passing shot down the line in the very next game to earn a break point, which she converted after a netted backhand by the German.
After a swift hold for 4-4, Gauff seized her moment in the opener, hitting aggressive returns and groundstrokes to clinch 2 break points.
Another backhand miscue by Petkovic at an inopportune time gave Gauff a pivotal 5-4 lead and the American had no trouble racing to triple set point in the following game.
A solid serve led to a netted return by Petkovic, putting Gauff a set away from a spot in her first singles final at her first chance.
She found herself in early peril in the second, though, as she faced 3 break points at 2-1, but she used strong defence and a handful of deft drop-shots to pull herself through that game and hold on for 2-2.
It was a bitter blow for the German, who rued the missed opportunities.
The American was rewarded for her steeliness in the very next game, which went her way after a series of back-and-forth rallies.
On her 6th break point of the protracted game, Gauff finally outlasted Petkovic after the German double faulted, which gave the teenager a crucial break lead at 3-2.
Gauff held onto that advantage up to 5-4, when she served for the match, staving off 2 break points with a winning volley and another drop-shot, then using one final drop-shot to force an error and converting her second match point for another signature victory at Linz this week.
“I”m really happy and proud of myself,” said Gauff on court after the match. “She played an amazing match and, honestly, if two points went a different way, it could have been a different outcome.
“I’ve had a lot of luck and happiness here. This is my lucky tournament here. They [my team] support me a lot.
“I always tell them I don’t mind when people get loud because it helps me.
“I appreciate that. Thank you to my team for that and especially my Dad. I think I get a lot of my personality and on court personality from him.”
Later, the American told the media: “This was one of the highest-level matches I’ve played. Andrea hit a lot of winners and put pressure on me.
“I was fighting for every point, even at break points down, I just tried to get the serve in and make her play a point.”
This is Gauff’s first WTA tournament since she left the court in tears after a heavy defeat by two-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka in the US Open third round.
Gauff showed plenty of variety in her game as she beat the 75th-ranked Petkovic, relying frequently on well-executed drop shots.
“I’m not the most confident with it [drop-shots] but it worked well today,” she said. “I think I’ll keep using it until it doesn’t work so well anymore.”
The youngest-ever winner of a WTA Tour title was two-time US Open champion Tracy Austin, aged just 14, at Portland in 1977.
In the final on Sunday, this girl from Florida will play former French Open winner Jelena Ostapenko of Lativa, who overcame Russia’s Ekaterina Alexandrova in a long three-setter.
Gauff is also still in the doubles draw alongside her familiar partner Caty McNally.
2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko, 22, has been working with 2013 Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli, having added the Frenchwoman to her coaching team on a trial basis, and it seems to be paying off.
“We are really good friends,” said Ostapenko. “We decided to try and work together this week.”
Bartoli, who became a commentator following her retirement in 2013, weeks after lifting her maiden Grand Slam in London, said their ‘same game style’ was one of the main reasons they decided to work together.
“She sometimes asked me about a player when I was commentating,” said Bartoli. “We have the same game style, it’s easy for me to understand the way she plays.”
The 22-year-old Latvian is through to the Linz final after a tough, topsy-turvy semi-final against Ekaterina Alexandrova from Russia.
She came through by the narrowest of margins and, for much of the match, looked to be on the losing end but she prevailed against the No 8 seed, 1-6 7-6(5) 7-5, after 2 hours 21 minutes to reach her first final of the year.
The former Top 5 player had to come back from the brink of defeat, saving 3 match points on the way.
Each player had 14 break points in the match, and, indeed, Alexandrova broke the Ostapenko serve one more time than vice versa, but it was the Latvian who claimed victory after steely performances at the tail end of the second and third sets.
She saved her first match point at 6-5 in the second set, and then two more at 5-4 in the third.
Alexandrova, last year’s Linz runner-up, had things all her way in the first set, as her great groundstroke game was on point while the unforced errors from the fiery Ostapenko piled up.
The Russian slammed an ace on her second set point as she picked up the opening frame in 30 minutes, putting herself within a set of making a second consecutive Linz final.
Ostapenko found herself down an early break in the second set as well, but pulled level at 3-3 as yet more winners flowed from her racket.
The Russian was apparently not bothered and, after saving 3 break points to reach 4-4, she swiftly broke Ostapenko to love to reach 5-4 and served for the match.
Alexandrova fired an ace to reach her first match point in that game, but she missed that chance after letting a backhand fly long, and succumbed to a break from there, tying the set at 5-5.
They moved into a tiebreak to decide the second set, where, at 5-5, Alexandrova missed a forehand wide to hand Ostapenko her first set point and, as the Russian fired a service return wide, the match was deadlocked at one set apiece.
An early exchange of breaks in the decider led to fairly routine service holds up to 5-4, but things got tricky for Ostapenko there.
Alexandrova fired a forehand crosscourt winner in that game, which gave her 2 more match points, but the Russian struck unforced errors on both of her chances, and eventually Ostapenko closed out the game with a nerveless forehand winner to reach 5-5.
The unforced errors slipped over into the next game for Alexandrova, and she hit 2 miscues in a row to drop serve, suddenly putting Ostapenko into the lead.
Serving for the win at 6-5, the Latvian saw Alexandrova save one match point with a return winner, but Ostapenko converted her second to complete a remarkable comeback victory.
On Saturday, Ostapenko will get her first experience facing the latest teenage sensation, Coco Gauff.