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(2) Aryna Sablenka vs. (6) Coco Gauff

When Aryna Sablenka celebrated her improbable comeback victory against Madison Keys in the semifinals, she couldn’t believe what she had just done. On such a big stage, in such a big moment, against such a respected opponent.

She dropped her racket, cupped her face with her hands and turned to her player’s box to share in the triumph.

As coaches are wont to do, they told her she wasn’t done yet. They implored her to steady herself and finish the job. She had not reached the finish line yet.

Except this wasn’t metaphorical coachspeak. She literally hadn’t won the match yet.

She had prematurely celebrated after winning her seventh point in a 10-point tiebreaker.

Embarrassed, she scooped up her racket and tried to hide her flub, but of course it was too late for that. So she did the next best thing…she won three more points and closed out the match.

Now her coaches can tell her to finish the real job: winning the US Open.

Sabalenka will move to the top of the world rankings when she leaves New York, win or lose. Her job on Saturday is to prove that she deserves that ranking by winning the tournament. Leave no doubt.

She knows that the better path to No. 1 would have been through defeating current No. 1 Iga Swiatek head-to-head, who fell in the fourth round and thus ended her 75-week streak at the top.

“I didn’t want to become world No. 1 like this,” Sabalenka said when Swiatek lost. “I want a battle for this.”

She’s getting her battle. Three times over, actually.

Her first battle is Coco Gauff.

Her second battle is the US Open crowd, who will be wildly cheering for Gauff.

Her third battle will be internal. She will have to prove to herself that she deserves this ranking.

On the other side of the net, Coco Gauff is playing with house money.

She’s the underdog. She is exceeding expectations ahead of schedule. She’ll have the home crowd behind her. She has Brad Gilbert keeping her loose and swinging freely.

Win and she jumps to a career high No. 3. Lose and she’s back in the top five anyway, and she will have lost to the new best player in the game. No shame in that.

What Gauff is playing for is a springboard into an already fruitful professional tennis career. Owning a major title before entering your twenties takes a ton of pressure off.

She’ll have expectations either way, it’s just a matter of flavor. It’s either “when are you going to win your first slam” or “when will you win your next slam?” The latter is a much more comfortable place to be. Get one in the books, baby.

Match Breakdown

Sabalenka is a bigger hitter. She will be able to push Gauff around if she’s on her game.

She also exorcised her own “when are you going to win your first major” demon earlier this year in Australia. That should relax her a bit and give her additional confidence.

Sabalenka’s game runs hot and cold, and her temperature changes quickly. One big forehand can change her attitude in a heartbeat. A few sloppy forehands and she’ll let you reel off a few easy games in a row.

Coco plays with much more variety, and her task will be to wiggle Sabalenka’s thermostat.

She can’t blow Sabalenka off the court, but she can move her in all four directions and try to extract some errors. She’ll need to read Sabalenka’s emotions, which are on full display.

When Sabalenka is flailing, Gauff should play steady and let her make mistakes. But when Sabalenka gets in the zone, the only option for Gauff is to take bigger risks and try to forcefully retake control. If she can’t do that, it will be a quick match for Sabalenka.

The crowd will play a big role in this match. Sabalenka already survived an American in the semifinals, so she knows what to expect. Keys doesn’t work the crowd the same way Gauff does, though.

Gauff will be able to conduct the crowd like an orchestra with a few well-timed big plays. Can she ride their support to her first Grand Slam title?

Winner: Aryna Sabalenka