FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y. — When most of the tennis world last saw Cori (Coco) Gauff, she was captivating Wimbledon with her girlish charm and preternatural calm, to say nothing of her astonishing array of tennis weapons.
The story added a more harrowing but ultimately happy chapter Tuesday night in Louis Armstrong Stadium, where the 15-year-old Gauff, the pride of Delray Beach, Florida, playing her first grownup match in the U.S. Open, showed an abundance of grit and resolve, coming back from a debacle of a first set to defeat Anastasia Potapova, an 18-year-old, 72nd-ranked Russian, 3-6, 6-2, 6-4.
By the finish, Gauff was pumping her first and getting bathed in cheers from a jubilant crowd that wanted very much to see Gauff begin a fortnight that they hope will reprise her fourth-round run at Wimbledon.
“This crowd is amazing,’ Gauff said in an on-court interview. “I hope I am back on this court.”
But that was not how things unfolded at the outset. Looking tight and tentative, Gauff double-faulted three times in her first service game, and nine overall. When she had two chances to break back in Game 3, she netted a couple of backhands and seemed as if she were fighting herself with every stroke. She slapped her thigh, as if to get herself going, and gestured emphatically to her parents in her box to sit down after she fell behind, 3-0.
She later said: “I think I gave them a heart attack, especially my Mom.”
“I wanted to win and I tried to calm myself down,” Gauff said of how she tried to keep her composure when she was struggling. “Really it was the crowd, because I was almost out.”
Gauff settled down later in the set, and when she smacked a superb backhand crosscourt winner for a break that got her to 5-2, she looked to have righted the floundering ship, even more so when she held at love a game later.
But Potapova served it out at 15, as Gauff knocked a forehand long on set point. It was a dispiriting launch for Gauff, but she immediately began to show the same resilience she had at Wimbledon, where she climbed out of a 3-6, 0-3 hole in her third-round test against Polona Hercog, saving two match points in the process.
3-6, 6-2, 6-4 💪💪
— US Open Tennis (@usopen) August 27, 2019
Gauff broke Potapova in the critical sixth game of the second to go up 4-2, the Russian hitting the tape with a backhand as her shot carried long. Gauff went up 5-2 with the help of an artful backhand slice drop, and when she closed the set out with an overhead winner, she screamed and clenched her fists, hoping the opening-night jitters were finally behind her.
Amping up her confidence, Gauff became much more assertive in the third set, dictating play, spanking a crackling forehand crosscourt winner to break Potapova and go up 3-1.
After Gauff held for 4-1, Potapova called for the trainer, who worked on her elbow and right shoulder as Gauff ran in place to stay warm. It looked as though Potapova was on her way out of the first round, but then she held for 4-2 and broke when Gauff double-faulted yet again for 4-3.
Potapova drew even in the eighth game, fighting off two break points Gauff earned with wicked crosscourt backhand winners, and closing it with a backhand winner of her own, down the line to make it 4-4.
Gauff retook the lead, angling a service winner out wide for advantage in the ninth game, going up 5-4 when Potapova netted a forehand. Minutes later, with Potapova wobbling, Gauff broke her as Potapova launched a forehand long. She swung her racquet in anger and Gauff headed happily to the net. The second round beckoned after a scary adventure in Queens.