This time, there was no sold out crowd roaring at her every point.
This time, there were no celebrities in the courtside boxes, no Kobe Bryant flashing her a thumbs up in the stands at Louis Armstrong Stadium.
This time, 16-year-old Coco Gauff would not be able to hand us another feel-good story, would not be able to live up to the incredible pressure put upon her as we search for someone young and hopeful to latch onto in this crazy topsy-turvy world.
Coco-mania lasted exactly one day at the U.S. Open this year as the American teenager lost a grueling first-round match to Anastasija Sevastova, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4, in a near silent stadium with just a couple dozen spectators in masks looking on.
It was an incredible contrast to last summer when Gauff -- who beat Venus Williams along the way to the fourth round at Wimbledon as the youngest qualifier in tournament history -- made it to the third round of last year’s Open before losing to 2018 champion Naomi Osaka.
Gauff bounced back from that loss to stun Osaka months later in the 2020 Australian Open, the last Grand Slam tournament to be played before the worldwide pandemic shutdown the tour. The two would have met in the third round of this year’s U.S. Open had both won their two matches.
New York has not been kind to Gauff this year as she has struggled to play in the fan-less bubble that was set up to house both the U.S. Open and Western & Southern Open. Gauff lost, 6-1, 6-3, in the first round of the Western & Southern Open to Maria Sakkari, the No. 13 seed, before losing to Sevastova.
Gauff, who sobbed on the court after losing to Osaka last year, declined to blame the odd, eerily quiet atmosphere for her troubles on Monday.
“I think I compete just as hard – with fans or not,” she said. “I could have played better today. Just going to get back to work and get ready for the French Open.”
Before Monday, Gauff had played her best in Gran Slam tournaments. The loss to Sevastova marked the first time she has lost in a Grand Slam before the third round.
Gauff double-faulted 13 times and had her serve broken seven times against Sevastova, the No. 31 seed from Latvia. Though she avoided double faults in the final game of the third set, she was unable to avoid a series of forehand errors.
“I wish I would play like this when I was 16 years old,” said the 30-year-old Sevastova. “Great player. Nothing more to say. I think maybe she started a bit slower than me, but she was getting better as the match went on.
“In the end I think third set she played her best tennis. She was serving better, moving better. It was tough, yeah. Fortunately I stayed calm in the third set and managed to win, to close it out.”
In many ways, Gauff seems like one of the oldest 16-year-olds the world could imagine. She seems pretty aware of how unusual her world is. During the pandemic break, she wrote in a post for the website Behind the Racquet about how tough it was to be a tennis prodigy, saying that for a solid year before her Wimbledon win she had been depressed and wasn’t sure if she should keep playing.
Gauff said that overcoming her own demons helped her achieve a more positive attitude and fall back in love with the game.
While some could label what happened to Gauff Monday an inevitable sophomore slump as her competitors are no longer caught off guard by her power game, it’s impossible to say given the weirdness of the world right now.
Coco-mania may have ended in Flushing Meadows after one day, but maybe that is a good thing. Perhaps we shouldn’t have been looking for a 16-year-old to help us forget what is going on.