By Amy Tennery
NEW YORK (Reuters) -Teenager Coco Gauff mounted a fierce comeback to beat Belarusian second seed Aryna Sabalenka 2-6 6-3 6-2 in the U.S. Open women's final on Saturday, claiming her first Grand Slam title and cementing her place in American tennis royalty.
With the win, sixth seed Gauff became the first American to win a U.S. Open singles title since Sloane Stephens in 2017.
Gauff, 19, fed off noisy local support as she fought back in the second set and kept the momentum going until the end of the battle, before falling to the court on Arthur Ashe Stadium as she clinched the title with a backhand winner.
Sabalenka had a superb start but could not keep the momentum going as unforced errors piled up and she closed her 2023 Grand Slam run, which included an Australian Open title and semi-finals at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, on a disappointing note.
"It doesn't get more dramatic than that, to be honest," said Gauff, who lost in her only previous major final appearance last year at Roland Garros.
"I knew today was going to be one of those problem-solving tough matches because she's a tough opponent, so I'm obviously happy with the result."
There were early signs of nervousness from both players, as Gauff made a pair of unforced errors to help Sabalenka to a break in the opening game, and the Belarusian dropped serve in the fourth game with two double faults and an unforced error.
The crowd urged on Gauff, the first American teenager to reach the U.S. Open singles final since Serena Williams in 2001.
But Sabalenka blocked out the noise and used her mighty forehand to convert on a break point chance in the fifth game. The Belarusian was helped to another break in the seventh as Gauff double faulted and made two more costly forehand mistakes.
The 25-year-old Sabalenka, who will take over as world number one in the new rankings, had ended Gauff's run at Indian Wells earlier this year but told reporters this week she expected a “different player” in Saturday’s final.
She ended up facing just that in the second set, as the American showed new resolve when she fended off a pair of break points in the first game and flipped the script.
What was once a lopsided affair turned into a battle as Gauff increased her intensity, sending Sabalenka scrambling around the court in the fourth game before the Belarusian dropped her serve with a double fault.
Gauff produced an overhead smash to break in the opening game of the third set and converted another in the third game.
Sabalenka took a medical timeout after the fifth game, consulting a physio for an apparent issue with her left thigh, but did not appear worse off as she broke in the next game.
If Gauff was rattled, however, she did not show it, winning a 20-shot rally before breaking back in the seventh game and soaking up the adoration of the crowd at the major she grew up watching as she clinched the title.
After offering her opponent a hug, Gauff burst into tears and embraced her parents in the stands.
"The whole time I was saying to myself, 'Oh, my goodness, how is this real?'" she told reporters.
"When I sat down after hugging them back before the ceremony, it felt real in that moment, but when I was going to hug them it didn't. I almost forgot to shake the ref's hand. It was a crazy moment."
The tournament was celebrating 50 years of equal prize money at this year's edition, and pioneer Billie Jean King was on hand to offer Gauff the trophy.
Sabalenka had only dropped a single set en route to Saturday's finale and had tears in her eyes as she offered her opponent credit, chuckling as she said she wanted more finals against the American - but with "different results, hopefully."
She told reporters the tide had turned during the match as she began "overthinking" in the second set.
"Because of that I start kind of like losing my power," said Sabalenka "Then she start moving better. I start missing a lot of easy shots."
The win delivered on years of enormous expectations hoisted upon the young American Gauff's shoulders after she became the youngest ever to qualify for the Wimbledon main draw at 15 years old.
The breakthrough at such an early age came with its pitfalls.
"People were putting a lot of pressure on me to win. I felt that at 15 I had to win a slam at 15," said Gauff.
"I felt like I had a time limit on when I should win one, and if I won one after a certain age it wouldn't be an achievement.
"Yeah, it's just crazy the amount of things that I have heard or seen about myself, but I'm really happy of how I've been able to manage it all."
She found a new gear this summer, producing the best tennis of her career as she picked up a win in Washington and secured her first WTA 1000 title in Cincinnati, before embarking on a tremendous run through Flushing Meadows.
"A month ago I won a 500 title and people said I would stop at that. Two weeks ago I won a 1000 title and people were saying that was the biggest it was gonna get," said Gauff.
"So three weeks later I am here with this trophy right now... To those who thought they were putting water on my fire you were really adding gas to it and now I am burning so bright."
(Reporting by Amy Tennery, additional reporting by Steve Keating in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue, Ken Ferris, Daniel Wallis and William Mallard)