After trading games and points for nearly an hour in the first set, Gauff took the early edge after winning the tiebreak when Kenin, the No. 14 seed, hit into the net. The 15-year-old screamed "Come on!" and clenched her fist as she looked at her coaches and parents in her box, surrounded by more than 10,000 fans at Melbourne Arena. There was just one set standing between her and her first Grand Slam quarterfinal.
There was a palpable buzz during the set break. Everyone seemed eager to watch the teenage phenom continue to make history. While Kenin ran off the court for a bathroom break, the fans chanted, "Here we go, Coco, here we go!" with increasing urgency. By the time Kenin was back on the floor, it seemed everyone in the stands believed Gauff's victory was a foregone conclusion.
Everyone except Kenin. The 21-year-old American was also hoping to make her first trip to the quarterfinals at a Grand Slam and wasn't ready to throw in the towel.
She returned to the court and never gave Gauff a chance to close. She mercilessly rattled off shot after shot, game after game, and let Gauff struggle with unforced errors (she had 48 on the day) and presumed nerves. She broke Gauff early in the second set, and the high school sophomore could never recover. Kenin took the second set convincingly and was even more dominant in the decider, winning 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-0.
No matter how loud the crowd got, Kenin remained focused. After two hours and nine minutes, she emerged victorious, and Gauff's latest magical run was over. A missed backhand sealed her fate, and Gauff covered her tearful eyes with her hands. The two met at the net for a congratulatory hug, but Gauff was then quick to get off the court. She grabbed her bag, and waved meekly as the announcer said "Show your appreciation for Coco Gauff," as she walked to the exit. She was long gone before the applause died down.
"I was disappointed that I lost obviously," she said after the match. "I think naturally when I lose, I'm just a bit emotional.
"She definitely put a lot of balls in the court -- she's quick. Also her drop shots. I was getting to them, but I didn't necessarily play the drop shots right. I think I made a lot of errors today, as well."
Kenin defeats Coco to reach 1st career Grand Slam QF
Sofia Kenin is dominant after dropping the first set, defeating Coco Gauff 6-7, 6-3, 6-0.
While it was a devastating moment and a painful loss -- Gauff's first defeat in three sets at a major -- it marks the latest impressive run for the teenager since she burst onto the scene at Wimbledon over the summer.
Becoming the youngest player ever to qualify for the main draw at the All England Club, the relative unknown stunned her childhood hero Venus Williams, and all those watching, in the first round. She ultimately made it to the fourth round and became the darling of the tournament along the way. Each match became must-see viewing, and the expectations were high heading into the year's final Grand Slam.
She had another strong performance at the US Open and advanced to the third round before being eliminated by defending champion Naomi Osaka. The two made global headlines for their postmatch sportsmanship, and it only solidified Gauff's star status. She won her first WTA singles titles at Linz in October, as well as two doubles titles with her close friend Caty McNally in Washington and Luxembourg.
Gauff knocked off Williams, yet again, in her opener in Melbourne and followed that up with a three-set victory over Sorana Cirstea before setting up a rematch with Osaka. After a lopsided first meeting, Gauff showed just how much she had progressed since August, winning 6-3, 6-4 for her first victory over a top-five player. It seemed as if Gauff had gone from the future to the present in the blink of an eye. Some were even considering her a legitimate contender to win the Australian Open title.
But while the crowd was disappointed by the final result on Sunday, Gauff said she was ultimately pleased of her overall showing in Melbourne.
"The thing I'm most proud of myself is how I handled it on the court," she said. "Even though today I lost a set 6-0, I was still believing I could win it. I don't think I showed any negative emotion too much in the match. I just tried my best.
"I guess what surprised me is how calm I was going into all these matches. I wasn't really nervous. I was just coming in pretty calm. I'm happy that I'm not letting the moment seem too big than what it is."
As she's said throughout the tournament, she is excited to continue playing doubles with McNally. They face Shuko Aoyama and Ena Shibahara, the 10th-seeded pair, on Monday in the third round and will likely have another huge, supportive crowd at Melbourne Arena. Her future beyond that is somewhat less clear.
Despite her success and a ranking that is expected to rise to around 52nd, Gauff is limited to how many tournaments she can play over the next several months due to her age.
In hopes of preventing burnout, the WTA introduced restrictions for young players in 1994. Revised somewhat over the years since, players age 13 and under are not allowed to play at all, and 14- to 17-year old players have decreasing restrictions, with 14-year-olds capped at eight professional events (and only three where the prize money is greater than $60,000). A 17-year-old is allowed to play 16 events. If the player has done well at the junior level, she could potentially have that limitation increased.
As a result, Gauff said she only has one tournament remaining due to the 10-tournament limitation (Grand Slam events do not count). She said she will start play at Indian Wells in California before her birthday in March but otherwise will be training at her home in Florida.
"My short-term goal is to improve," she said. "I mean, that's the main thing. I'm doing well right now at 15. I still have so much I feel like I can get better on. Even my parents, my team, they all believe I can get better.
"I don't even think this is close to a peak for me, even though I'm doing well right now. The goal is just really to get better, you know, have these good runs at tournaments, building up my experience and playing more tournaments just so I can be ready for matches like this today."
Once she turns 16 on March 13, the clock essentially resets, and she will be able to play more tournaments. She plans on being in the draw for the Miami Open, which begins at the end of March, and then the French Open, with the possibility of one lead-up clay tournament. Hoping to make the United States' 2020 Olympic team for Tokyo, she knows she's in a difficult spot as she has a much-smaller window of opportunity than her peers to bring up her ranking and make the highly competitive six-women team.
Still, she's happy about where she is in her life and her career. She now-famously asked, "What is my life?" after beating Osaka on Friday, and she was asked to reflect on that Sunday after her loss.
"I don't know what my life is," she said with a laugh. "Yeah, it's hard to answer that just because I don't know. I couldn't really write this. I don't think anybody could really write how this past couple months have gone.
"I'm definitely going to savor this and continue to kind of build and get better to work for moments like this, moments like that last match. Even today, even though I lost, I still had a lot of fun. I mean, now looking back, I'm not as disappointed anymore."