Coco Gauff’s first Grand Slam title will have to wait … but for how much longer?

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LONDON — It could have been a devastating day for Coco Gauff.

She had arrived at Wimbledon brimming with confidence and coming off of her first major final at the French Open last month. Considered one of the favorites at this tournament, many believed this could be the Grand Slam in which Gauff made her seemingly inevitable breakthrough and won the title.

And on Saturday, with the Centre Court crowd firmly behind her and coming off of a dominant second-round win, one that she later called some of the best tennis she’s played on grass, the 18-year-old looked very much poised to advance to the fourth round at Wimbledon for the third time in her third appearance.

Gauff had a blistering start against fellow American Amanda Anisimova, rushing out to a 3-0 lead. But nothing was easy after that. Anisimova won the next four games, and Gauff needed a tiebreak to take the first set.

She won just three more games the rest of the match. Ultimately, Anisimova, 20, came out on top 6-7 (4), 6-2, 6-1 to advance to her first round of 16 at the All England Club, and Gauff was handed the earliest exit of her career at the tournament. Gauff quickly rushed off the court after the match, but several hours — and one mixed doubles victory — later, she could already see the bigger picture.

“I mean, I am disappointed, but also at the same time I think I did what I could in that moment in the match,” Gauff said on Saturday night. “She played well. I mean, I played well at moments, and didn’t play well in some moments. She was just the better player today.

“So I think there’s just a lot I think I have to improve on. I feel like I can get better. I feel like over this [European] trip literally every single day I’ve gotten better, and that’s all I can ask for.”

Now Gauff turns her attention to her mixed doubles run with Jack Sock — they reached the quarterfinals with another victory on Sunday — and then will focus on the upcoming hard-court portion of the summer. While she still wasn’t sure of her schedule for the lead-in events ahead of the US Open just yet, one thing is for sure: She will remain a contender at the year’s final major and have all of the expectations and attention that have followed her since she first came on the scene.

Even before her auspicious major debut at the All England Club in 2019, in which she defeated longtime idol Venus Williams on Centre Court in her opener and ultimately reached the fourth round, the hopes have been high for Gauff. Many have seen her as the sport’s next big superstar since she was playing at the junior level.

Before she was legally able to drive, she was signed by Roger Federer’s agent, Tony Godsick, and had been the focus of an apparel bidding war. Her run at Wimbledon three years ago was in many ways just the inevitable next step. And that success only created more buzz.

But there were restrictions about how much she could play on tour due to her age, and the coronavirus pandemic disrupted much of the 2020 season. But while the casual fan might have been disappointed by her lack of big results on the Grand Slam stage, Gauff continued to make improvements to her game and achieved steady results on tour. She won two singles titles, at Linz and Parma, and four doubles titles, including her first of any kind at the 1000 level in Doha, Qatar, (with Jessica Pegula) in February. She reached the quarterfinals at the French Open in 2021, and she played in the doubles final (with Catherine McNally) at the US Open in September.

And then she had the best result of her career at the French Open. Gauff didn’t drop a set en route to the final and never needed more than 90 minutes on court. As former major champions and top seeds continued to fall in her half of the draw, she confessed to Pegula, her doubles partner, that she knew people were now expecting her to win her matches, but she didn’t let it faze her.

Everything, it seemed, was coming together exactly as it should.

But Iga Swiatek was simply too good in the final, and there was never any doubt during her 6-1, 6-3 drubbing of Gauff. The American couldn’t hide her tears at the end, but she still knew there was a lot to be happy about.

“I know I’ve been saying a lot, ‘Oh, it’s just a tennis match, you know, it doesn’t matter,’ [but] really, that’s what I believe,” Gauff said after the French Open final. “It doesn’t matter. I mean, with the emotions now I’m feeling it a lot, but tomorrow I’m going to wake up and be really proud of myself.”

With the season then turning to grass — a surface on which Gauff has had previous success and one on which Swiatek has limited experience — Gauff was a betting favorite to win the Wimbledon title. She reached the semifinals in her lone lead-in tournament in Berlin. Even Rafael Nadal praised her fighting spirit and predicted she would one day be a “multi-Grand Slam winner” earlier this week.

But it was not to be. Not this time.

There have been many teenagers on tour to win Grand Slam titles over the years, including Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, and more recently with players such as Bianca Andreescu and Emma Raducanu. There has been a lot of talk about Gauff joining the esteemed list, and she still has plenty of time to do it, but that doesn’t seem to be something she is fixated on.

“That’s more of a media thing, than coming from her,” said ESPN analyst Alexandra Stevenson, who reached the Wimbledon semifinals as an 18-year-old qualifier in 1999. “She has such a great perspective about what’s expected of her. She’s just taking it one day at a time, and not caring about what other people think. Everyone has an opinion, but all she needs to do is listen to her parents, her coaches and herself.

“Nobody else’s [opinions] matter. And that’s what she does. She believes in herself, knows she can do it, and she’s just fine. Even when she loses, she knows what she needs to work on and she’ll go right back to work.”

Perhaps ironically, or perhaps because of the added attention, Gauff has had the worst results of her brief career at the US Open. She reached the third round in her debut in 2019, and then lost in her opener in 2020 and in the second round in 2021. But she said she wouldn’t even think about the tournament or the hard-court season until her time at Wimbledon was over.

On Saturday night, just hours after the loss, Gauff was back out on the court. This time it was the smaller No. 3 Court, and she was joined by Sock, but she was just as excited to be there as she was on Centre Court. The duo, who came together via Twitter, won their first-round match 6-4, 6-1, and their partnership gave her a new goal for the moment.

“Right after the match [against Anisimova] I was so disappointed. Then I was, like, ‘I’m still in mixed; I’m going to just have fun out there.’ I had a lot of fun. I was laughing, smiling on every point. With the intensity of singles and even doubles, it’s not really often [to be able to do that].

“Yeah, for me it was kind of crazy to play with him. It was definitely a bucket list for me, and I’m glad I was able to do that. I hope that we can keep winning.”

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