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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Coco Gauff out of Wimbledon after Emma Navarro shock on Centre Court

Emma Navarro celebrates after beating Coco Gauff on Sunday in London.  (Tribune News Service)
By Matthew Futterman The Athletic

WIMBLEDON – The ball whistled past Coco Gauff‘s shoulder, and seconds later her hand was over her mouth.

It had come from Emma Navarro, the 23-year-old American three years removed from winning the NCAA singles title, who had just planted a forehand passing shot on to the baseline to take the first set of their fourth-round duel 6-4. About 40 minutes later, it was Navarro’s turn to gasp, as she closed out a stunning 6-4, 6-3 win to knock out the world No. 2, American No. 1, and one of the current favorites for the Wimbledon title that will be handed out on Saturday .

For Gauff, the loss is a major disappointment. She cruised past her first three opponents and watched so many of the other top threats for the title fall away during the first week of the tournament, including Iga Swiatek, the world No. 1.

After a tight first set that turned on the two last points, one of them that beautiful pass, the defending U.S. Open champion came apart in the fourth game of the second set. So confident on her serve through the first 12 games, she suddenly became tentative, hesitant; tossing the ball once then twice; double faulting and making errors off her forehand on shots that are usually easy for her, which has long been shaky at times in tight spots.

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

She would win that game, and then turn to Gilbert for more pointers, then walk away in frustration. When Gilbert caught her eye next, he could be seen telling her to put more loop on her forehand and fight for every point, the main elements of the formula that won her the U.S. Open last September, when she turned her matches into long-distance track meets and outlasted all her challengers.

After helping lead both Andy Roddick and Andre Agassi to the top of the tennis mountain, before leaving the coaching ranks to concentrate mainly on television work, Gilbert returned a year ago to work with Gauff. He did it, specifically, to be right where he was Sunday evening: In the coaching box on Centre Court at Wimbledon, with the dream and the goal of having 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 as her dream of another Grand Slam final ,which for the first week at the All England Club had been looking so achievable, began to slip away.

Gauff said she and Gilbert had a game plan to play aggressive 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 shots, she prevailed 16-3.

Gauff realized she was having one of those rare moments where she wasn’t able to find solutions on her own.

“Today, mentally there was a lot going on,” Gauff said. “I felt like I wanted more direction from the box.”

This isn’t the first time Gauff and Gilbert have had this sort of conflict.

“They usually give me something,” she said. “I felt today that we weren’t all in sync. It’s no one’s blame except myself. I mean, I’m the player out there. I have to make decisions for myself on the court.”

Navarro, who shows little emotion regardless of the numbers on the scoreboard, kept her cool and stayed steady. She saw Gauff going back-and-forth with Gilbert and knew what was happening.

“Definitely a confidence boost,” she said. “Gave me some momentum and I was able to take advantage of it.”

When she is on, the 2021 NCAA champion and No. 19 seed here plays a rock-solid, aggressive game from the baseline, and gives her opponents little for free. And was she ever on Sunday evening. She used her backhand slice into Gauff’s forehand corner to neutralizing effect, denying her pace to redirect and forcing her to take the initiative on a shot that isn’t always her best friend.

On the surface, this was a major shock. Gauff was the only player to make it to at least the semifinals of the last three Grand Slams. She appeared likely to repeat that at Wimbledon, especially with a favorable draw in the early rounds that saw her face two opponents ranked far outside the top 100.

Then came Navarro, who played one of the best matches of her career – or at least the best since she knocked out four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka in the second round. In the span 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 giantkiller.

She shook briefly on her first match point, sending a forehand long, but earned another one with a twisting serve that induced an error from Gauff.

Another forehand error from Gauff earned Navarro a third match point. Another sealed it.

Navarro’s work was done. She said she “didn’t have a ton of words” after the match, and credited her aggression, which she said she needed to have a chance of tempering her opponent’s game.

She will play Italian No. 7 seed Jasmine Paolini – “not an easy out,” Navarro said.

The No. 2 seed isn’t much of an easy out either, but Navarro did have something working in her favor. She knew Gauff, before she was “Coco”, the worldwide celebrity known as much by her first name as her second. At the end, the old friends hugged over the net, equals once more on the most prestigious stage that tennis has to offer.

Navarro has known and been playing with and against Gauff since Gauff’s her first days in competitive tennis, and Gauff was playing girls a few years older, because girls her own age were not good enough.

They played a junior match and travelled in the same circles until Navarro went to college and Gauff went 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 prowess and the fearlessness that every player on the tour has gotten to know very quickly.

Navarro is still getting to know this version of herself as well.

“I’m believing that this is possible as it’s happening,” she said. “I’m starting to think, Why not me? Why not? Why can’t I make a quarterfinal run? Why can’t I go deep in Grand Slams? I think I’m coming into that belief as we speak.”