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Coco Gauff tops Karolina Muchova to reach the US Open final. The match was delayed by a protest

NEW YORK (AP) — Coco Gauff never wavered. Not when a big lead in the first set evaporated. Not when match point after match point went by the wayside. And not, most distracting of all, when her U.S.
Naomi Osaka, center right, waves after a match between Coco Gauff, of the United States, and Karolina Muchova, of the Czech Republic, during the women's singles semifinals of the U.S. Open tennis championships, Thursday, Sept. 7, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

NEW YORK (AP) — Coco Gauff never wavered. Not when a big lead in the first set evaporated. Not when match point after match point went by the wayside. And not, most distracting of all, when her U.S. Open semifinal against Karolina Muchova was interrupted for 50 minutes Thursday night by environmental activists — one of whom glued his bare feet to the concrete floor in the stands.

It’s been rather obvious for quite some time that Gauff is no ordinary teenager. Now she is one win away from becoming a Grand Slam champion.

Gauff, a 19-year-old from Florida, reached her first final at Flushing Meadows by defeating Muchova 6-4, 7-5 on what was anything but an ordinary evening.

The toughest part for Gauff, who was the runner-up at the 2022 French Open, might have been closing out Thursday's victory: She needed six match points to get it done, raucously supported by a loud, partisan crowd that chair umpire Alison Hughes repeatedly implored to quiet down.

After failing to convert one match point while serving for the win at 5-3, then another four in what turned out to be the last game, Gauff got the last chance she would need when she smacked a forehand winner to cap a 40-stroke exchange that was the longest of the contest. Muchova then missed a backhand to end it.

Gauff pumped her fists, waved to the fans and put a finger to her ear, as if to say she wanted to hear even more support.

“Some of those points, it was so loud, and I don’t know if my ears are going to be OK,” said Gauff, the first American teenager to make it to the title match in New York since Serena Williams in 2001.

“I grew up watching this tournament so much, so it means a lot to be in the final. A lot to celebrate,” Gauff said. “But the job is not done, so hopefully you can back me on Saturday.”

She was up by a set and 1-0 in the second when four protesters disrupted play from seats in an upper level of the arena. All four were arrested; three were escorted away relatively quickly, but it took more time to remove the person glued to the ground.

Both women spent time in the locker room during the delay. When action resumed, the play was pretty even for several games, until Gauff surged ahead and got her first match point. Muchova erased that with a volley winner and went on to break back.

They would play on for nearly a half-hour.

With Gauff leading 6-5 and Muchova serving, the one-point-away count kept climbing. Muchova resisted. Gauff was unable to pull through.

Once. Twice. Three times. Four. The roars from the seats kept coming. Finally, Gauff completed her 11th win a row and the 17th in her past 18 matches, a run that began after a first-round exit at Wimbledon in July. The streak includes the two biggest titles of Gauff's career — and now she needs one more win to get an even more important championship.

The No. 6-seeded Gauff will meet No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus or No. 17 Madison Keys of the U.S. on Saturday.

Sabalenka, who won the Australian Open in January and is guaranteed to move up to No. 1 in the rankings for the first time next week, and Keys, the runner-up at the 2017 U.S. Open, played in the second semifinal Thursday night.

“I may watch some of the match. Maybe not,” Gauff said. “I haven't thought that far ahead, to be honest.”

When Gauff and Muchova got started at 7:15 p.m., it was cloudy and considerably cooler than it’s been this week at Flushing Meadows, dropping from nearly 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 Celsius) on Wednesday to the low 80s F (high 20s C).

Gauff was terrific in the early stages: She took 12 of the first 16 points for a 3-0 lead after merely 10 minutes.

One real key in that stretch: Gauff did not let No. 10 seed Muchova, a 27-year-old from the Czech Republic, get comfortable at the net, where her varied style often pays dividends. Muchova lost the point on her first three forays forward — and Gauff curled perfect a lob winner once in each of the opening two games. By match's end, Muchova had gone just 10 for 24 at the net.

“Just kind of sad about the performance,” said Muchova, who reached the final at Roland Garros in June.

She was visited by a physiotherapist during the extended break caused by the protest and said her right arm — covered by a black sleeve — bothered her during the tournament.

If she wasn't at 100% — what player is by this point of the season? — Gauff deserved credit for finding the right times to let Muchova miss as opposed to trying to get too aggressive. Muchova made 36 unforced errors, 11 more than Gauff.

“You have to be focused and finish points," Muchova said about the challenge that facing Gauff presents. "You have to be there on the court and then see where she is running. You have to think where to put the ball to finish it at the net or try to play it earlier.”

What Gauff also displayed was that she was ready for the moment, the sort of success predicted of her since, at age 15 in 2019, she became the youngest qualifier in Wimbledon history and got to the fourth round there. Now a Grand Slam title could be two days away.


AP tennis coverage:

Howard Fendrich, The Associated Press