New York (AFP) – Coco Gauff said tennis icons Serena and Venus Williams paved the way for her breakthrough US Open triumph on Saturday after the American teenager captured her first Grand Slam title.

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The 19-year-old from Florida battled to a 2-6, 6-3, 6-2 defeat of Aryna Sabalenka at the Arthur Ashe Stadium — where as a child she had watched the Williams sisters dominate.

The win ensured Gauff will have her name etched into tennis history alongside other Black American women to lift the title such as the Williams sisters, Althea Gibson and Sloane Stephens.

“It’s crazy. I mean, they’re the reason why I have this trophy today, to be honest,” Gauff said of the Williams sisters.

“They have allowed me to believe in this dream growing up. You know, there wasn’t too many just Black tennis players dominating the sport. It was literally just them that I can remember when I was younger.

“Obviously more came because of their legacy. So it made the dream more believable. But all the things that they had to go through, they made it easier for someone like me to do this.”

Gauff referenced the Williams sisters’ 14-year boycott of the prestigious Indian Wells tournament — due to alleged racist heckling and Venus Williams’ push for equal pay for women at major championships.

“You look back at the history with Indian Wells, with Serena, all she had to go through, Venus fighting for equal pay,” Gauff said.

“Words can’t describe what (Serena and Venus Williams) meant to me. I hope another girl can see this and believe they can do it and hopefully their name can be on this trophy too.”

Gauff’s breakthrough victory will catapult her to a new level in the hierarchy of American sport.

Hollywood celebrities and sports stars such as NBA greats Kevin Durant and Jimmy Butler were on hand to witness Saturday’s triumph.

She was soon bombarded with congratulatory messages from former US President Barack Obama and current President Joe Biden.

“Congratulations to US Open champion, @CocoGauff,” Obama wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

“We couldn’t be prouder of you on and off the court – and we know the best is yet to come.”

‘Don’t lose the dream’

As the dust settled on Saturday’s victory, video footage of Gauff dancing in the crowd as a fan at the US Open rapidly went viral.

Coco Gauff says Serena and Venus Williams inspired her journey to the US Open
Coco Gauff says Serena and Venus Williams inspired her journey to the US Open © Kena BETANCUR / AFP

Asked what message she would send to her younger self, she replied: “I would tell her don’t lose that dream.”

“That little girl, like she had the dream, but I don’t know if she fully believed it,” Gauff said. As a kid, you have so many dreams. You know, as you get older sometimes it can fiddle away…I would tell her don’t lose the dream. Keep having fun.”

Gauff admitted that she had lost belief in herself at times in the years since she burst onto the scene as a 15-year-old prodigy making a deep run at Wimbledon in 2019.

Last year she was distraught after losing her first Grand Slam final at the French Open. This season she hit rock bottom after a first round exit at Wimbledon in July.

That defeat at the All England club prompted her to bring the veteran Brad Gilbert into her coaching team. Immediately her fortunes improved, with a win at the Washington Open in August followed by a breakthrough first WTA 1000 title at the Cincinnati Open.

“You know, people, I don’t know, I just felt like people were, like, ‘Oh, she’s hit her peak and she’s done. It was all hype’,” Gauff said of the reaction to her Wimbledon loss.

“I see the comments. People don’t think I see it but I see it,” she told reporters. “I know who’s talking trash and I can’t wait to look on Twitter right now.”

Gauff added that she had used the pain of her crushing French Open final loss to Iga Swiatek last year — where she won only four games in a straight sets defeat — to spur her to Saturday’s win.

“The French Open moment, I don’t know if they caught it on camera but I watched Iga lift up that trophy, and I watched her the whole time. I said, ‘I’m not going to take my eyes off her, because I want to feel what that felt like for her.’

“That felt like craziness today lifting this trophy. It hasn’t sunken in and I think it probably will maybe in a week or so.”