Tennis is in great shape with Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff
FLUSHING MEADOWS — After Naomi Osaka soundly affirmed her top seeding with a 6-3, 6-0 win over the shooting star 15-year-old Coco Gauff in the third round, the capacity crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium watched as a genuine moment unfolded.
Gauff, whose confidence flagged and second serves turned to jello as the errors piled up, had in one hour and five minutes gone from the most celebrated young American player back into a teenager with a lot of growing up to do. Osaka saw the transformation.
“It reminded me how young she was,” said Osaka, notably senior with her 21 years.
Gauff was wiping her eyes with her sweatbands when Osaka walked straight to her to offer some advice and comfort, recommending she share the stage of the postmatch interview in front of a crowd that backed the nascent player. Osaka knew fans generally don’t see the press room interviews, and thought Gauff might feel better if she could address the fans directly.
“I wanted her to be aware she’s accomplished so much, and she’s still so young,” Osaka said.
It was appreciated.
“After the match, I think she just proved that she's a true athlete,” Gauff said of Osaka. “For me the definition of an athlete is someone who on the court treats you like your worst enemy but off the court can be your best friend. I think that's what she did tonight.”
Osaka provided a moment of catharsis, a way for the 140th-ranked Gauff to turn this painful loss into connection — to her fans, to Osaka, and to a road of future matches stretching before these two women like lampposts on a moonless night.
“It was sportsmanship like I’ve never seen before,” ESPN commentator Chris Evert said.
In he postmatch interview, Gauff also alluded to what happened when Osaka won the U.S. Open last year, on the same court they stood on Saturday night. Her words carried the echo of a critique leveled at another player who shared that stage with Osaka.
"I don't want people to think that I'm trying to take this moment away from her because she deserves it," Gauff said through the tears.
That final will be remembered for Serena Williams’ emotional rejection of officiating that resulted in penalties and anger. Williams was criticized for taking the sweetness out of Osaka’s win. Perhaps that was true, but Williams also realized what was happening and tried to halt the crowd’s booing and insulate Osaka, albeit too late.
Maybe that was what Osaka took away from that night, an empathy that she could also extend to this phenomenal young player who isn’t quite ready to upend a top seed under the lights of tennis’ biggest stage.
There was a moment when Gauff perhaps thought she could beat Osaka. It was 15 minutes into their third-round match, and Gauff was down 3-0 to the No. 1 seed. Gauff had finally gotten an edge on her service game thanks to two unforced errors from Osaka, and an ace put her one point away from consolidating the game.
That’s when Gauff unleashed a 119 mph ace and punctuated it with a fierce, “Come on!”
The next game, she broke Osaka to get back on serve at 3-2. Gauff’s momentum stalled out there.
Many of the 23,771 fans gathered in the largest tennis stadium at a Grand Slam venue wanted to root for the teenager, but she didn’t give them too many chances.
A week before the US Open began, Osaka pulled out of a hard-court tournament with a left knee injury. But she said her focus is back and the best it’s been since she won the Australian Open in January, her second Grand Slam.
Osaka recognizes a little of herself in Gauff. They can both be quiet, and Osaka decided to bridge the distance when she saw the young American listening to headphones, something she’s done herself to gain some space.
“She wasn't really talking to anyone,” Osaka said. “I was, like, Oh, looks familiar. I'm just going to talk to her. I know she's super young, and I know it's sort of hard to transition.
“I wasn't even a junior, but I can only imagine as a junior you play these tournaments with your friends, and then you come to the pros and you don't know anyone. I just, like, Oh, she's a really talented girl. I would love for her to come out of her shell a little bit. I just realize that's probably what people say about me, too.”
This is the part of the column where we pause to appreciate an athlete who thoughtfully discusses an upcoming opponent beyond, “We’re on to Cincinnati.”
Gauff is one of a slate of American women who have upended expectations. Wildcard Kristie Ahn, age 27, defeated Jelena Ostapenko 6-3, 7-5. Twenty-three-year-old qualifier Taylor Townsend, followed up an upset of No. 4 Simona Halep by beating Sorana Cirstea 7-5, 6-2. Serena Williams, the No. 8 seed here, and No. 10 Madison Keys are also through to the fourth round.
Townsend, now 23, has had a challenging path and this is her first time reaching the second week of the US Open.
“It just attests to the growth and the beauty of the sport having consistent people around for years, being able to track people's progress, how they come through the sport,” Townsend said. “You get media attention from such a young age, like Coco, 15, 14 years old, even 13 from getting to the finals of the junior US Open.”
This is the future of tennis. In a perfect world, Gauff and Osaka will be playing at the US Open for a decade, until we all Uber a drone to get to Queens and use the microchips embedded in our wrists to pay for a Honey Deuce.
No Coco, you didn’t take a moment away from Osaka. That moment was made big enough to carry both of you and the next generation of women who will inherit the game.