Coco Gauff’s toil pays off as American sets up US Open final against Aryna Sabalenka

<span>Photograph: Frank Franklin II/AP</span>
Photograph: Frank Franklin II/AP

The best summer of Coco Gauff’s career began with a dose of crushing disappointment. After arriving at Wimbledon full of hope, her great ambitions were instantly extinguished with her first round exit. Many sleepless nights followed as she tried to figure out how to take the next step forward in her career.

It is to Gauff’s immense credit that her work ethic and commitment continue to pay off so handsomely. In a tension-filled encounter that was delayed due to protests from climate change activists, Gauff’s consistency and composure guided her into her first US Open final as she defeated Karolína Muchová 6-4, 7-5.

Related: Coco Gauff and Aryna Sabalenka to meet for US Open title after semi-final wins – as it happened

This victory marks Gauff’s second grand slam final after she finished runner-up to Iga Swiatek, the No 1, at the French Open last year. Since that fateful Wimbledon first-round loss to Sofia Kenin in July, Gauff has won 17 of her last 18 matches and she is on an 11-match winning streak. She is the youngest American player to reach the US Open final since 17-year-old Serena Williams won in 1999.

“After Wimbledon, I wasn’t expecting to do well honestly in this hard court season, so I’m really proud of the way I have been able to turn this season around for me,” said Gauff.

“I still think I have a lot to improve, but yeah, 100% I wasn’t thinking those results would happen. Even after DC, didn’t think this would happen. Even after Cincy [Cincinnati], didn’t think this would happen. I’m really proud of myself and there is still a long ways to go.”

Gauff will face Aryna Sabalenka, the Australian Open champion and new No 1, in the final after the Belarusian survived a bruising first-strike battle with Madison Keys, recovering from a 0-6, 3-5 deficit to close out an incredible 0-6, 7-6 (1), 7-6 (5) win and also reach her first US Open final.

Aryna Sabalenka embraces Madison Keys at the net.
Aryna Sabalenka embraces Madison Keys at the net. Photograph: Cj Gunther/EPA

The opening semi-final hosted two of the in-form players of the summer in a rematch of the Cincinnati final won by Gauff. A US Open semi-final, though, is an entirely different challenge. While Gauff met the moment with assured, consistent counterpunching, Muchová sprayed errors off both groundstrokes, leading to Gauff sealing the first set 6-4.

Related: US Open semi-final interrupted as climate protester glues feet to floor in stands

Early in the second set, with Gauff leading 1-0, climate change protesters halted play by chanting from high up in the Arthur Ashe Stadium bleachers. Two of the spectators were escorted out of the stadium but, after one of the activists glued his bare feet to the concrete floor, the match was indefinitely delayed. Both players eventually left the court.

“I always speak about preaching about what you feel and what you believe in,” said Gauff afterwards. “It was done in a peaceful way, so I can’t get too mad at it. Obviously I don’t want it to happen when I’m winning up 6-4, 1-0, and I wanted the momentum to keep going. But hey, if that’s what they felt they needed to do to get their voices heard, I can’t really get upset at it.”

Forty-nine minutes later, the players returned and the level rose dramatically. With her groundstrokes failing to hold up in extended rallies, Muchová used her deep toolbox of shots as she opted to relentlessly attack the net. Gauff’s consistency endured as she reached match point on her serve 5-3, but Muchová saved it and pulled herself back into contention at 5-5.

In the end, it took everything for Gauff to close out a long, brutal final game on Muchova’s serve as the Czech continually fended off match points with her brave and varied offensive play. After a breathless 40-stroke rally, the longest of the tournament in either draw, brought up her sixth match point, Gauff maintained her resolve and sealed the biggest win of her life.

Although Gauff is still just 19 years old, this has been some journey already. The initial breakthrough and the hype that immediately followed eventually gave way to discussions about her not living up to the timetable they had set for her career. With every year she has amassed a greater understanding for the value of moving at her own pace, in her own time. As a result, she is a grand slam finalist on home soil for the first time in her young, blossoming career.

“I grew up watching this tournament, it feels so special,” Gauff said. “But the job is not done.”

As Gauff departed, two of the biggest shotmakers of the past decade followed and it was Keys who was in astounding form, lasering winners from all parts of the court and striking the ball so violently that even Sabalenka could not keep up. But through her frustration and anger, Sabalenka somehow found a way to hold on long enough until Keys’s level began to drop.

After pulling herself back from the brink, and forcing her way into the ascension, Sabalenka had to clear one final hurdle after she prematurely celebrated her victory, forgetting that the decisive tiebreak is first to 10 rather than seven.

This was particularly significant considering Sabalenka had compiled a 1-5 record in grand slam semi-finals, all five of her losses coming in three tight sets, with her failing to close out numerous leads. Even after she won her first grand slam title in Australia this year, two more crushing defeats followed at the French Open and Wimbledon. Finally, she survived to reach her second grand slam final.

“I was keep reminding myself that I lost a lot of tough matches,” said Sabalenka. “One day all those matches should just help me somehow. This kind of thinking help me to stay in the game and give me some hope that I’ll be able to turn around this match, that the match is not over until the last point and that I just have to keep fighting, keep trying to find my rhythm, my game, just find myself.”