NEW YORK - She had already been pushed into the backhand alley twice, each time a little bit wider. Zhang Shuai, the veteran who had somehow found herself losing a tennis match in which she played spectacularly well, was spinning the web for Coco Gauff, trying desperately to create enough pressure to get the 18-year old to crack.
Zhang's second backhand had been hit so well, with so much angle close to the line, that it completely swept Gauff off the court. At 0-15, with Gauff trying to serve out a match with razor-thin margins for a spot in the U.S. Open quarterfinals, that one shot could have changed everything.
Zhang had set up the point perfectly to win it with a forehand into the open court, but Gauff wasn't having it. Sprinting the full 36 feet from alley to alley, she got there in just enough time to stab the ball back in play. Zhang, coming forward in anticipation of a short ball, hit a perfectly-placed low angled volley tracking away as Gauff scrambled to get back in the court.
She couldn't get there, could she? How could she possibly still win the point? The answer, of course, is because Gauff isn't your normal 18-year old. Or your typical superstar. With a lunging backhand flick that dipped low to the ground, catching Zhang so off-guard that she batted it into the net, the energy that was drained from this tournament when Serena Williams exited Friday came roaring back Sunday.
OPINION: Serena falls in epic in match that was a tribute to her legendary career
SERENA: Ranking Williams' 23 Grand Slam singles titles. Which is No. 1?
It is too clean, too neat, too perfect to suggest that the torch has been passed from one American sporting legend to a teenager who grew up idolizing her. But here in Arthur Ashe Stadium, there is little doubt about who is capturing New York's imagination from here on out.
Just call her Coco.
When Gauff won that point - a true pressure moment in a match where she faced danger at every turn - she wagged her right finger like Dikembe Mutombo, screamed toward her player box and shook her fists, reveling in the volume of nearly 24,000 full-throated fans in Arthur Ashe Stadium. Zhang could only cover her ears.
A few moments later, Gauff had completed a 7-5, 7-5 victory. As much as her greatness has seemed preordained since she made a shocking run to the fourth round of Wimbledon in 2019 as a precocious 15-year old, Sunday carried a lot of significance in her ascent.
For the first time other than the French Open, where the slower clay surface plays to the strengths of her game, Gauff will play in a Grand Slam quarterfinal. More importantly than that, the quality of her play this week suggests that actually winning this tournament is not far from her grasp.
"I feel like I got no free points in that match. Same with her, I don't think I was giving away any free points," she said. "I'm super happy with how I played. It was mentally and physically a tough match. But I think that shows all the practice is coming together."
Gauff's toughest test may well come on Tuesday, where she'll meet 17th-seeded Carolina Garcia of France.
Though the 28-year old Garcia is five spots lower than Gauff in the WTA rankings and has advanced as far as a Grand Slam quarterfinal only once in her career, she has been the hottest player in women's tennis since Wimbledon, winning the Poland Open and the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati. Along the way, Garcia has beaten four top-10 players including No. 1 Iga Świątek. And at the U.S. Open, Garcia hasn't even come close to dropping a set in her four matches. Even the fact that Gauff defeated Garcia in both meetings over the past year seems irrelevant at the moment.
"I think she's a different player now," Gauff said.
But so is Gauff, who became the youngest American woman to reach the U.S. Open quarterfinals since 17-year old Melanie Oudin in 2009. Even if her run ends Tuesday, this was another major step toward what she's going to become in this sport. It might have been the best match she's ever played in a Grand Slam.
Against an opponent in Zhang who consistently pushed Gauff deep, with returns and powerful forehands that landed inches from the baseline, she had to be tough. She had to be precise. She had to methodically find her way out of trouble and not give in to the temptation of playing impossible shots. And most of all, she had to hold her nerve, particularly after Zhang finally broke through in the second set for a 5-3 lead.
"I think it's definitely being mature," she said. "I always realize the importance of every point. Even sometimes if you lose a set, like, if you come back from 4-1 and give that person a hard time, it mentally does something to the other player.I just try my best to fight for every point. I think I was always fighting for every point, but I think I'm doing it in a smarter way. I think that just comes from learning from the same mistake over and over and over again."
These are things Gauff might not have been able to do a year ago, or maybe even a few months ago. Sure, she made the French Open final this spring before losing decisively to Swiatek, but even then Gauff's overall game did not look as clean and powerful as it has in this U.S. Open.
For the last couple years, Gauff's backhand has been one of the elite shots in women's tennis. But her forehand, which employs a longer, loopier motion that sometimes causes technical glitches, has often been a sore spot for opposing players to target.
Sunday, though, there was zero hesitancy in Gauff's forehand, even as Zhang pounded away at it with deep, penetrating groundstrokes. Gauff finished the match with just six unforced errors on the forehand and 10 winners, a count that could very well be good enough to hold the U.S. Open trophy if she can replicate it a few more times.
Beyond that, though, Gauff is becoming the natural heir to Williams as the rare player who embraces the pressure of Arthur Ashe Stadium and performs with the personality of a Broadway star. The big game, the swagger, the refusal to give up on any point - it's all there.
"For some reason I'm so much more animated (here)," she said. "Here I can't hear myself scream. Makes me want to do it more. I think I'm feeding off the momentum a lot. I enjoy it. I think New York is bringing out a side of me that I haven't had since I was 15, so it's nice."
For years, Williams was the one New York wanted to come see because, if nothing else, you knew it was going to be a show. Coco may not win as many Grand Slams as Serena, but at this U.S. Open, she has an opportunity to take her place as the biggest star, the must-see attraction in the sport.
And on Sunday, Gauff looked like she was ready for all of it - including the winning.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: US Open: Coco Gauff ready to follow in Serena Williams' footsteps