Coco Gauff misses Wimbledon after Emma Navarro shock on Centre Court

WIMBLEDON — The ball whistled past Coco Gauff‘s shoulder and seconds later she had her hand over her mouth.

It came from Emma Navarro, the 23-year-old American who was three years removed from winning the NCAA singles title, who had just planted a forehand pass on the baseline to take the first set of their fourth-round clash 6-4. Some 40 minutes later, it was Navarro’s turn to gasp as she completed a stunning 6-4, 6-3 victory to topple the world No. 2, the American No. 1 and one of the current favorites for the Wimbledon title that will be awarded on Saturday, July 13.

For Gauff, the loss is a huge disappointment. She beat her first three opponents and saw so many other top threats to the title fall by the wayside in the first week of the tournament, including I’m going to Swiatekthe world’s number 1.

After a tense first set that hinged on the final two points, one of which was that beautiful pass, the reigning US Open champion fell apart in the fourth game of the second set. So sure of her serve in the first 12 games, she suddenly became hesitant, tentative; throwing the ball once, then twice; double-faulting and forehanding on shots that normally come easily to her, who has long been shaky in tight moments.

Two games later, she was openly fighting with her coach, Brad Gilbert, shaking her arms in exasperation at him as she sat in her chair during a substitution, pleading with him. “Tell me something,” she said to him from across the court. “Tell me something,” as she walked back to serve.

She would win that match, then turn to Gilbert for more direction, only to walk away in frustration. When Gilbert caught her attention, he could be seen telling her to run her forehand more and fight for every point, key elements of the formula that won her the US Open last September, when she turned her matches into long-distance matches and outlasted all her challengers.

Having helped both Andy Roddick and Andre Agassi to the top of the tennis mountain before leaving the coaching ranks to focus primarily on television work, Gilbert returned to work with Gauff a year ago. He made a point of being exactly where he was on Sunday night: in the coaching box on Centre Court at Wimbledon, with the dream and goal of helping one of his players win the title, something that had eluded him during his career.

Gauff may yet get there, but not this year. Gilbert didn’t have the magic words and Gauff didn’t have the magic in her hands when her dream of another Grand Slam final, which had seemed so possible in the first week at the All England Club, began to slip away.

Gauff said she and Gilbert had a game plan to play aggressively and try to hit her “hardball” through Navarro. It didn’t work. Navarro played like a backboard and on rallies that lasted more than nine strokes, she won 16-3.

Gauff realized she was having one of those rare moments when she couldn’t find a solution on her own.

“Today was a lot mentally,” Gauff said. “I felt like I wanted more direction out of the box.”

It’s not the first time Gauff and Gilbert have had these kinds of conflicts.

“Usually they give me something,” she said. “Today I felt like we weren’t all in sync. It’s nobody’s fault but me. I mean, I’m the player out there. I have to make decisions on the field.”

Navarro, who shows little emotion regardless of the numbers on the scoreboard, remained calm and steady. She watched Gauff go back and forth with Gilbert and knew what was happening.

“It definitely boosted my confidence,” she said. “It gave me some momentum and I was able to take advantage of it.”

When she’s on, the 2021 NCAA champion and No. 19 here plays a strong, aggressive game from the baseline, giving her opponents few freebies. And that’s exactly what she did on Sunday night. She used her backhand slice into Gauff’s forehand corner to neutralize, preventing her from redirecting her pace and forcing her to take the initiative on a shot that’s not always her best friend.

At first glance, this was a big shock. Gauff was the only player to reach the semifinals of the last three Grand Slams. It looked as if she would repeat that feat at Wimbledon, especially with a favorable early-round draw against two opponents ranked well outside the top 100.

Navarro refused to give Gauff a chance the entire match. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Then came Navarro, who played one of the best matches of her career — or at least the best since knocking out four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka in the second round. In the space of a few days, Navarro, an unassuming young woman born in New York and raised in South Carolina, has become something of a Centre Court giant-killer.

On her first match point she briefly misplaced the ball and hit a forehand too far, but she got another with a spinning serve that led Gauff to an error.

Another forehand error from Gauff gave Navarro a third match point. Another finished it off.

Navarro’s work was done. She said she “didn’t have many words” after the match, giving credit to her aggression, which she said she needed to temper her opponent’s play.

She will play against Italian number 7 Jasmine Paolini, “not an easy way out”, according to Navarro.

No. 2 isn’t exactly an easy out, but Navarro did have something in her favor. She knew Gauff before she became “Coco,” the global celebrity known as much by her first name as her middle name. At the end, the old friends embraced across the net, once again on equal footing on tennis’s most prestigious stage.

Navarro has known Gauff since her early days in competitive tennis, playing with and against her. Back then, Gauff was playing against girls a few years older because her opponents weren’t good enough.

They played a junior match and traveled in the same circles until Navarro went to college and Gauff turned pro. Gauff was fully aware of Navarro’s talent and fully expected her old friend to excel once she joined the tour, because of both her ability and the fearlessness that every player on the tour has quickly come to know.

Navarro is still getting to know this version of himself.

“I believe that this is possible now that it’s happening,” she said. “I’m starting to think, why not me? Why not? Why can’t I get to the quarterfinals? Why can’t I go far in Grand Slams? I think I believe that now that we’re talking.”

(Henry Nicholls/AFP via Getty Images)

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