NEW YORK – It was noticeably quiet on the US Open grounds on Saturday morning. It was the first day of the post-Serena Williams era, and it felt like the job site had been blown out.
Ahead of Williams’ third-round game against Ajla Tomljanovic, there had been a palpable buzz everywhere — in the nosebleed seats at Arthur Ashe Stadium, in the food court lines, even while waiting in traffic. Thousands gathered to catch a glimpse of the 23-time Major champion during her training sessions, and her matches became the hottest ticket in town.
But then she lost and her legendary career was over. Even Rafael Nadal’s (albeit one-sided) match against Richard Gasquet at Ashe on Saturday night felt flat.
But something happened on Sunday. Or rather someone.
In the second game of the afternoon on Ashe, 18-year-old Coco Gauff faced an uphill battle against Zhang Shuai, and the crowd grew louder and louder with every hard-fought rally and athletic feat. There were “Let’s go, co-co” chants and frequent reminders to silence from the chair umpire.
“It feels crazy. I mean, Ashe Stadium chanting my name?” Gauff said during her on-court interview after the game. “I tried not to smile when I came on the bench. I tried to stay in the moment.”
Gauff eventually won the match 7-5, 7-5, becoming the youngest American to advance to the quarterfinals at the event since 2009 and the first teen since Victoria Azarenka to reach the round at two majors, also in 2009 the same season . (Gauff reached the final of the French Open earlier in the year.)
While three matches stand in the way of her first Grand Slam title – starting with a very tricky quarter-final match against the red-hot Caroline Garcia on Tuesday night – it’s clear she’s one of the game’s next big superstars.
And she’s not the only up-and-coming talent revitalizing the crowds this fortnight.
Frances Tiafoe celebrates after beating Rafael Nadal in second place on Monday. JUSTIN LANE/EPO-EFE/Shutterstock
On Monday afternoon, Frances Tiafoe pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the tournament with a 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 win over Nadal, the 22-time Major champion, to advance to second place in the major quarterfinals his career.
The 24-year-old American has long charmed audiences with his fearless game, powerful shots and fun style. In the fourth round, he found a way to put it all together at his home slam. While Nadal remains one of the most popular players on the tour, Tiafoe transformed the crowd as the game progressed and by the end everyone was on their feet as Tiafoe secured the biggest win of his career.
Around the same time, Iga Swiatek, the two-time No. 1 French Open champion, advanced to the quarterfinals with a three-set comeback win over Jule Niemeier on Louis Armstrong’s court on Monday. After falling in the first set, the 21-year-old won 12 of the last 16 games of the match.
Later in the night, Jannik Sinner, 21, became the youngest player since Novak Djokovic in 2008 to reach the quarterfinals at all four Majors as he held off Ilya Ivashka in five sets.
In the early hours of Tuesday, 19-year-old Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz defeated 2014 US Open champion Marin Cilic 6-4, 3-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 and moved back into the lead Quarterfinals before , in New York. He had a surprise run into the same round in 2021 and has since become a force on the tour — and a fan favorite. A staunch group of supporters stayed in the stands chanting his name and waving Spanish flags until the end of his fourth-round game, well after 2 a.m. ET.
And of course there’s Nick Kyrgios, the 27-year-old Australian of seemingly limitless skill and electrifying showmanship. After years of underperforming and receiving as much attention for his unpredictable antics as his talent, he reached his first major final at Wimbledon in July.
Now he’s in his first US Open quarterfinal after a clear win over Daniil Medvedev on Sunday. After Nadal’s defeat, Kyrgios is the betting favorite to win the title. While everything seems to be coming together for him on the court, his private life is not without controversy. He was accused of domestic assault by a former partner and has a hearing related to the allegation in October.
Carlos Alcaraz has reached the quarterfinals at the US Open for the second straight year. JUSTIN LANE/EPO-EFE/Shutterstock
It seems tennis has finally reached a changing of the guard moment. It’s been expected for years as the biggest names got older, but apparently the time is now.
In addition to Williams’ retirement, Roger Federer, 41, has been sidelined for over a year as he recovers from surgery on his right knee, Djokovic, 35, is playing on a limited schedule due to his unvaccinated status and Venus Williams, 42, has been playing sparingly. While Nadal, 36, has won two major titles this year, he has suffered a string of injuries over the past 13 months and on Monday earned his earliest Grand Slam exit since 2017.
This is only the second Major since the start of the 2005 season in which Nadal, Djokovic or Nadal are not in the quarterfinals. Since 2003, there hasn’t been a US Open quarterfinal without the “Big Three” or Williams. No one left in both draws has ever won the US Open before and Swiatek is the only Grand Slam champion left.
“I think that Nick, who plays great tennis, is great for tennis,” Tiafoe said while wearing a ‘GOAT’ sweatshirt with pictures of Williams after his win on Monday. “You see him filling stadiums playing singles, doubles or whatever. Alcaraz is a great personality. Sinner. Myself. The people are behind me…
“It’s cool to see a new era.”
There have been several players who have looked like they could break through in recent years. Naomi Osaka seemed like a safe bet with her four major titles under her belt, but she has struggled on and off the pitch over the past 14 months. She lost in the first round in New York last week.
Medvedev defeated Djokovic to win the 2021 US Open and took the No. 1 ranking earlier this year, but he came far from defending his title this week.
A number of women have won Grand Slam titles in recent years since Williams temporarily left the Tour on maternity leave in 2021, but nearly all have failed to find consistent success following their breakthrough.
And winning isn’t the only thing that makes a superstar. These younger players have the “it” factor of charisma and authenticity and it’s no surprise they’re filling stadiums and winning new fans with every win.
Gauff’s popularity continues to extend beyond tennis. She has become a voice on societal issues, delivering an impassioned speech at a Black Lives Matter rally in 2020 and writing “End Gun Violence” on camera at the French Open shortly after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas .
Prior to this year, Gauff had never won a match against Ashe. In 2022 she played every match of the tournament on the court. Her first three were scheduled right in front of Williams.
This marquee placement had not escaped her notice.
“In my first lap I was shocked that I was put on Ashe,” said Gauff on Sunday. “Then it happened again in the second round. At that point I thought maybe it would keep happening, especially if Serena was playing.
“It has to be a perfect line-up for the spectators. I play first and finish with the GOAT. That’s crazy.”