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The check-in: Coco, Courage, and complete excitement for the WNBA playoffs
Yes, I struggled to find another "C" word.
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1. It’s Coco’s world.
As I hope you have heard by now, Coco Gauff won the U.S. Open on Saturday, defeating Aryna Sabalenka 2-6, 6-3, 6-2 in the final. The triumph capped off a stellar two-month stretch that saw Gauff enter a new stratosphere, on and off the court. While Gauff has shown signs of greatness since she soared into the global consciousness as a 15-year-old, as recently as early July, a breakthrough like this seemed like it might be years, not weeks, away. Gauff’s clay-court season was fairly unremarkable; she crashed out of the two big French Open warm-up events in Rome and Madrid in the third round, and though she made it to the quarterfinals at Roland Garros, she went down to world No. 1 Iga Swiatek without much of a fight. Then she lost in the first round of Wimbledon to an in-form Sofia Kenin. None of these results are disasters, but they’re hardly harbingers that she’s about to have the summer of her life.
But ever since the WTA tour moved to the United States hard courts, Gauff has been on an absolute tear, going 18-1 and capturing three of the biggest titles of her career in Washington, D.C., Cincinnati, and Flushing Meadows. Her tennis was patient and gritty, powerful and purposeful, electric and rational. It was whatever it needed to be, point by point, match by match. Her game matured before our very eyes. Often, you see athletes stumble after they reach new heights. But with Gauff, you could tell she felt completely comfortable stepping into her new self with each achievement level she unlocked, from her first 500-level title, to her first 1,000-level title, to her maiden Grand Slam title. It was a privilege to watch.
I talked a lot about Gauff in this week’s Power Plays podcast alongside Jessica Luther and Amira Rose Davis, so l’ll resist the urge to go on and on about Gauff, and instead just recommend that you all rewatch some highlights and her on-court interview during the trophy ceremony.
Also, her TikTok is phenomenal:
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2. The WTA Finals will be in Cancun.
As I’ve repeatedly discussed on the Power Plays Podcast, it’s absolutely absurd that we didn’t officially know where the WTA Finals would be held this year until last week, less than two months before they’re scheduled to begin. But the good news is that they won’t be in Saudi Arabia (not yet, at least).
The WTA Finals — an event which sees the top eight singles and doubles players of the year face off in a round-robin format to determine a year-end champion — is slated to take place in Cancun, Mexico beginning on October 29. Now, besides Saudi Arabia, the other main contender for host was the Czech Republic, which would have made a lot of sense from a travel and fandom perspective. Four of the top 14 players in the WTA rankings are from the Czech Republic, and at least two (Wimbledon champion Marketa Vondrousova and French Open finalist Karolina Muchova) are likely to make it to the WTA Finals. Plus, Mexico is not anywhere close to the WTA Tour’s stops in October, which are primarily in Asia and Europe.
That being said, if I didn’t have a wedding to attend in Washington, D.C. on the day of the championship match, I would be doing everything in my power to get to this. It’s a bucket-list sporting event and it’s in Cancun in early November? Yes, please.
I hope at least one of you can go so I can live vicariously through you.
3. I’m so impressed with how the North Carolina Courage have turned things around.
Over the weekend the North Carolina Courage hosted the Challenge Cup final and defeated Racing Louisville 2-0, defending their title from last season and concluding what is likely the final version of the Challenge Cup as we know it, as Jeff Kassouf reported last month at The Equalizer.
I was supposed to be at the game, but then there was basically a monsoon in North Carolina and due to a combination of bad timing, an inconvenient evening obligation, and said weather, I ended up driving for four hours in the pouring rain and seeing no soccer instead. But I did make it to media day on Friday, and left Cary extremely impressed by the vibes coming out of the Courage camp. Now, have the last few years taught me to be extremely skeptical about anything positive anyone in the NWSL says? Absolutely. But still, as long as we’re keeping our grains of salt close by, I think it’s worth it to look at some quotes.
Here’s Brittany Ratcliffe, who has been with the Courage since 2021, on how close the team is:
It can't be overstated enough that we are such a team. And no matter what your role is starter, not rostering on the bench, playing 90, playing 20, everyone's really bought into what we're doing here. And it's really special to see that belief and the good culture we have get rewarded with the championship this weekend and giving us an opportunity to play for a championship. And so no matter what the result is, I think the best part about this team is that at the end of the day, like we care about each other, and we care about the team and what we're building. So I think that's a victory for us in itself, you know, just having a culture that we can be proud of.
And here’s head coach Sean Nahas talking about the club’s turnaround after Paul Riley was fired due to allegations of sexual misconduct:
I think what's the best part for me as the coach is seeing them get rewarded because of the work that they put in. And you know, I've said this a million times in my postgame press conferences, I'm just happy that the club is being spoken about in a positive light now. Because we took a hit for a couple of years, and I've said before, rightfully so. But the club has done a great job in turning things around and the players have bought into a new way of playing that people are talking about, that we feel is attractive. But these players come every single day wanting to learn and get better. Not because we're asking it, but because they want to do it for each other. And they believe in the way we play.
It's a credit to the players that they've given themselves a chance and look, whatever happens after 90 minutes tomorrow, it's not going to define us the rest of the season, it's not going to define our growth. We've created something really special here and something that we can build upon moving forward. And all the credit goes to the players in the locker room because of the care that they have. And that started day one in this room when we met preseason about what we wanted to make of this.
So I'm just happy for the players, they have a chance to compete for one of three championships in this in this season. That's what you want. But it sure as heck not going to define us win, lose, or draw. In my eyes, they've, they've won because people are talking about them in the right way now, solely because of what they do on the pitch. And also because of how they are with their fans and who they are as people. And that, to me is more rewarding than lifting a trophy sometimes.
Of course, the Courage did end up winning the Challenge Cup and lifting the trophy. The MVP of the game? Manaka Matsukubo, a 19-year-old who was the youngest player to start the Challenge Cup and the youngest player to score in the Challenge Cup. She’s only been with the Courage for a few weeks, since coming over on loan from her Japanese team in July. She’s been a revelation. Here are two must-watch clips. First, we’ve got her goal, which was extraordinary:
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Then we’ve got her post-game interview with Lori Lindsey when she was presented with the MVP trophy.
If that doesn’t make you SO HAPPY, you’re dead inside.
Also, I recommend you head over to the Courage’s social media pages to ingest all of the celebration content you possibly can, because it is excellent.
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4. NWSL playoff race
Friends, the NWSL playoff race is absolutely bonkers. Each team has four games remaining, and the standings are just absurdly jumbled — the top six teams will make it to the playoffs, and right now, only four points separate the team at the top of the standings (San Diego Wave) and the sixth-place team (Washington Spirit). That’s nothing. Further more, the last-place team, the Kansas City Current, are only seven points out from playoff contention. A few wins down the stretch, and they could be right back in the picture.
I suggest you import the schedule into your calendar and buckle up for non-stop meaningful soccer between now and the first week of November.
5. The WNBA playoffs start TONIGHT!!!
Speaking of playoff madness, the WNBA playoffs tip off tonight at 8pm ET on ESPN2 with the third-seeded Connecticut Sun hosting the sixth-seeded Minnesota Lynx, followed by the top-seeded Las Vegas Aces hosting the eight-seeded Chicago Sky at 10pm ET.
Friday will see the second-seeded New York Liberty host the seventh-seeded Washington Mystics at 7:30pm ET and the fourth-seeded Dallas Wings host the fifth-seeded Atlanta Dream at 9:30pm ET, also on ESPN2.
To say I’m excited would be an understatement.
I previewed all of the first-round matches with Howard Megdal on this week’s episode of the Power Plays Podcast, but here are a few other previews to check out:
Over at The Next, Jackie Powell surveys the state of the New York Liberty headed into its series with the Mystics, and Hunter Cruse takes us inside the Atlanta Dream’s playoff preparations.
Kent Youngblood at the Star Tribune looked at the Lynx’s disastrous final regular-season game, and asks what it means for the postseason.
Kareem Copeland at the Washington Post dives into Alyssa Thomas’s MVP-caliber season and the Sun’s chances in the postseason.
Annie Costabile of the Chicago Sun-Times previews the Sky’s chances against the Aces.
Enjoy one of the best times of the year for women’s sports fans. I’ll see you later this week.