US Open 2023 : Gauff vs Sabalenka showdown

It doesn’t get much bigger than this, a home prodigy versus the incoming world No.1.

Coco Gauff / Demi-finales US Open 2023©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT
 - Alex Sharp

128 players down to two, the US Open women's tournament has served up a final fitting for a Broadway show.

Two supreme athletes, two exceptional players, who embody everything of a Grand Slam champion.

Rewind to Melbourne in January, Aryna Sabalenka has been there and done it. Coco Gauff, somehow still a teenager, has been ever so close as a Grand Slam runner-up.

Who will triumph on Arthur Ashe Stadium, to be the last woman standing on Saturday as a first-time US Open champion?

Sabalenka playing like top of the charts

This season Sabalenka is different prospect and that's been exemplified in the Big Apple this fortnight.

The 25-year-old has swatted aside opponents with consummate ease, illustrating why she'll be crowned world No.1 on Monday.

Then up stepped Madison Keys. The American led Sabalenka 6-0, 5-3 in the semi-finals, before Sabalenka harnessed her tiger spirit (the animal is tattooed on her forearm) to "magically" prevail 0-6, 7-6(1), 7-6[10-5].

Sabalenka has suffered her fair share of US Open heartbreak. She lost the 2021 semi-final against Iga Swiatek from a set up, and surrendered to Leylah Fernandez by going the distance, but falling short again in that semi-final decider.

Aryna Sabalenka / Demi-finales US Open 2023©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

“I kept reminding myself that I lost a lot of tough matches. I mean, one day all those matches should help me somehow," stated Sabalenka.

"That the match is not over until the last point and that I just have to keep fighting, keep trying to find my rhythm, my game, just find myself." 

Now that is a champion's mentality.

The Australian Open champion believes her Melbourne triumph will enable her to deal with all "those emotions" with so much at stake.  

Also, Gauff might edge their record at 3-2, but Sabalenka claimed a 6-4, 6-0 in their most recent tussle at Indian Wells in March.

Sabalenka is more than aware that the American teenager is an entirely different opponent this time out, boosted by a raucous, ardent home support at Flushing Meadows.

"Honestly I would say that she played much better than in that match. She improved a lot. So it's a different player," maintained the No.2 seed.

"Going into this final, I think I just have to focus on myself, no matter what, just keep fighting and do my best. What else can you do?

"I mean, she's moving really well. Also serving really well. She's hungry. She kind of like have nothing to lose. She knows that crowd going to support her. I think that's what makes her really difficult opponent."

Coco right where she belongs

Sabalenka is absolutely right, Gauff is transformed since their last meeting. In fact, since a first round defeat by Sofia Kenin at Wimbledon in June, the 19-year-old has posted a 17-1 match tally, with two titles to her name in Washington and Cincinnati.

Back in south west London in June, the American admitted she needs to go back to the drawing board. Soon after the world No.6 enlisted Pere Riba and Brad Gilbert as coaches.

The new set-up, the new voices, have helped transform the confidence and conviction in Gauff's game.

"Definitely after Wimbledon, I wasn't expecting to do well honestly in this hard court season, so I'm really proud of the way I have been able to turn this season around for me," said Gauff.

"I think honestly when I had that at Wimbledon I was really sort of thinking for offseason and preparing for next year.

Coco Gauff / Demi-finales US Open 2023©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

"Even after D.C., didn't think this would happen. Even after Cincy, didn't think this would happen. There is still a long way to go. I think I can improve a lot, but how I have been able to manage with the game I have now is something that I'm happy with."

The 19-year-old, the youngest American, male of female, to feature in the US Open singles final since Serena Williams back in 2001, has risen to every challenge so far at Flushing Meadows.

She fended off fellow-teenager Mirra Andreeva in straight sets, battled past the comeback Queen and two-time finalist Caroline Wozniacki 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, surrendered just two games to 2017 Roland-Garros champion Jelena Ostapenko, and kept her composure on Wednesday night 6-4, 7-5 over Top 10 talent Karolina Muchova. Talk about earning your stripes.

Gauff has already been in this position before back at Roland-Garros 2022. That Parisian spectacle fell in Iga Switek's favour 6-4, 6-2. The home charge's belief has evolved tenfold 15 months on.

"Playing that match, the whole tournament felt like a surprise to me. I wasn't expecting the final here either, but I just think then I was really winning and just relieved that I made it to a final because so many people expected a lot of things from me," mused the American.

"I think I just didn't really believe that I had it in me, especially at the time playing Iga, who was on a winning streak and everything.

"But this time around, I have been focusing more on myself and my expectations of myself. I really believe that now I have the maturity and ability to do it. You know, regardless of what happens on Saturday, I'm really proud of how I have been handling the last few weeks."

Hang on, Coco isn't done yet, just like Sabalenka there's a champion's mindset in there.

"The final is an incredible achievement but it's something that I'm not satisfied with yet."

It's showtime on Saturday night.