US Open drama as semis halted by climate protest

NEW YORK (AFP): The US Open was plunged into chaos on Thursday after environmental activists disrupted play, forcing a 49-minute stoppage as the tennis showpiece became the latest high-profile sporting event to be targeted by protesters.

The semi-final clash between American teenager Coco Gauff and Karolina Muchova in the Arthur Ashe Stadium was halted in game two of the second set as four protesters wearing t-shirts with the slogan “end fossil fuels” began chanting the same message.

The protesters, from the environmental campaign group Extinction Rebellion (XR), were greeted with jeers and chants of “kick them out” by other spectators as security staff moved in.

One of the protesters glued his feet to the concrete floor of the stadium, preventing his swift removal from the arena, tournament officials said.

The drama unfolded as Muchova prepared to serve early in the second set with Gauff leading 6-4, 1-0 just after 8pm local time.

Gauff and Muchova waited patiently on the court for several minutes but eventually left the court to return to the locker rooms.

“Following the first game of the second set in the Gauff-Muchova match, play was halted due to a protest conducted by four spectators,” the US Tennis Association said in a statement.

“Three of the four protesters were escorted out of the stadium without further incident. The fourth protester affixed their bare feet to the floor of the seating bowl,” the statement added.

“Due to the nature of this action, NYPD and medical personnel were needed in order to safely remove this individual from the stadium.”

The USTA said all four spectators had been taken into police custody.

Television footage showed Gauff and Muchova trying to stay loose in the locker rooms, consulting with coaching staff during the unprecedented delay.

Gauff and Muchova finally returned to the court at around 8.50pm local time after a stoppage in play officially timed at 49 minutes. Gauff, 19, would go on to win in straight sets 6-4, 7-5.

– ‘Last resort’ –

Extinction Rebellion said in a statement on Thursday the protest had been designed to draw attention to the “greatest emergency of our time.”

“The climate and ecological crisis threatens everything on our planet, including sports,” the group said in a statement.

XR activist Shayok Mukhopadhyay added that Thursday’s demonstration was taken as a “last resort”.

“We’re not protesting the event itself; we are not protesting tennis…We are here because we have to disrupt this public event as our last resort to draw public attention to the climate emergency we are facing today,” Mukhopadhyay said.

The incident is the latest in a series of protests by climate activists disrupting major sporting events around the world.

Major tennis events have been frequently targeted.

Last year a female activist disrupted the French Open men’s semi-final between Marin Cilic and Casper Ruud, tying herself to the net, while in September 2022 a man ran onto the court during the Laver Cup at the O2 Arena in London and set his arm on fire.

In July this year, three people were arrested after disrupting play at Wimbledon, scattering orange confetti and jigsaw pieces over the court. The three were subsequently charged with aggravated trespass and face criminal prosecution.

In a separate incident at the Ashes cricket Test between Australia and England at Lord’s in London in June, two men from the “Just Stop Oil” movement ran onto the field and scattered orange powder.

There were similar demonstrations during the recent World Snooker Championship and English Premiership rugby final.

Activists have also targeted Premier League matches and the Formula One British Grand Prix at Silverstone.

Gauff reaches US Open final

American teenager Coco Gauff shrugged off a 50-minute stoppage caused by climate protesters to power into the US Open final on Thursday with a straight sets defeat of Karolina Muchova.

The 19-year-old from Florida advanced to her first final at Flushing Meadows after winning 6-4, 7-5 in a semi-final that took nearly three hours to complete due to disruption by protests.

Gauff will face either second seed Aryna Sabalenka or compatriot Madison Keys in Saturday’s final, who play later on Thursday.

Gauff later revealed she was expecting protests during the tournament, but said she remained unfazed by treating the interruption like a weather delay.

“I thought it’d be in the final, I just treated it like a rain delay,” she told ESPN.

“In DC and Cincinnati people were passing out (because of the heat)… so I treated it like that.”

The American youngster will be targeting her first Grand Slam title after battling to victory on the Arthur Ashe Stadium court.

Gauff, who is now the youngest American woman to reach the US Open final since her idol Serena Williams in 1999, had looked to be cruising towards victory in the first set.

The teenager broke Muchova twice early on to race into a 5-1 lead.

But her Czech opponent regained her composure and turned the tables as the fluency returned to her powerful groundstrokes.

Muchova fought back to break, cutting Gauff’s lead to 5-4 after the teenager had twice served for the set.

However Muchova then faltered and Gauff broke back to clinch the first set when her rival hammered a backhand return into the net.

The second set was only one game old when environmental activists disrupted play, chanting “End fossil fuels”. One of the protesters glued themselves to the floor of the stands, forcing a 50-minute stoppage.

When the players returned, a tense second set unfolded.

Muchova held off a match point in the 10th game to level at 5-5 before Gauff held for a 6-5 lead.

Muchova then saved four more match points on her serve before finally succumbing on the sixth match point, hammering a backhand return long to leave Gauff victorious.

Sabalenka fends off Keys to reach final

Aryna Sabalenka fought back from the brink of defeat to overcome American 17th seed Madison Keys in a third-set tie-break and line up a US Open final against home favourite Coco Gauff.

Keys served for the match in the second set but incoming world number one Sabalenka overhauled the 2017 runner-up to win 0-6, 7-6 (7/1), 7-6 (10/5) to reach her second Grand Slam final.

“She played incredible tennis, it was just another level. Somehow, I don’t know how I turned around this match,” said Sabalenka, the second seed.

“It really means a lot to be in the final of the US Open for the first time.”

Sabalenka rode an emotional rollercoaster, angrily remonstrating with her coaching team at times, before being able to sheepishly laugh off celebrating prematurely in the decisive tie-break.

“I thought that we play tie-break up to till seven,” she said. “I was just all over the place.”

The Australian Open champion will bid for her second Grand Slam title on Saturday against the 19-year-old Gauff. The American holds a 3-2 edge but this will be their first meeting at a major.

“She’s an unbelievable player,” said Sabalenka. “The crowd will be supporting her a lot. I will do everything I can. I’ll be fighting for every point and I will do my best.”

Sabalenka handed Keys a break in the first game with a double fault and her troubles were compounded when she again dropped serve after leading 40-0 two games later.

Keys shook off two break chances before a wayward Sabalenka faltered on serve for a third time, allowing her opponent to wrap up the set with ease.

Sabalenka sarcastially raised her arms in celebration as she held to finally get on the board to start the second set.

Keys continued to pump winners with her powerful forehand and broke again for a 2-1 lead, Sabalenka drawing a code violation after smacking a courtside barrier and hurling her racquet towards her coach.

The Belarusian briefly got back on serve before Keys struck once more, further infuriating an irate Sabalenka who had stormed into the semi-finals without losing a single set.

Sabalenka broke Keys to love to stay in the tournament, winning 12 points in a row to move 6-5 ahead, but she couldn’t convert two set points as the American steadied herself to force a tie-break.

However Sabalenka won that easily to send the match to a deciding set, before which Keys took a medical timeout to receive treatment to her upper left leg.

Keys withstood an early break point and the first five games went on serve before a loose game from Sabalenka handed Keys the initiative at 4-2.

Sabalenka dug deep and overpowered Keys to retrieve the break straight away, surviving two more break points to level at 4-4.

The Belarusian took charge in the tie-break, leading from the front before securing a second win over Keys in as many Grand Slams.