Naomi Osaka’s third-round meeting with 15-year-old Coco Gauff was perhaps the most anticipated match of the first week at this year’s U.S. Open. Gauff is the tennis story of the summer after reaching the fourth round at Wimbledon by upending Venus Williams in the first round and falling only to eventual champion Simona Halep. Osaka is the top-ranked player in the world but, might you forget, still just 21 years old. A year ago, she was just another face on the tour; her rise has come so quickly and sent her so high that sometimes it feels like she’s a weathered veteran. So, on Saturday night, the crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium was seeing something that doesn’t come around often: a matchup between the future of the game and … whatever comes after that.
The match itself was bizarre at the beginning. The crowd, firmly and clearly behind Gauff, boomed during warmups. When the first set began, both players struggled with their deliveries while hitting impressively off the ground. The first frame featured five breaks of serve. On each of Gauff’s breakpoints, the crowd threw the full force of its weight behind her. Osaka, maybe feeling the weight of the moment, played tightly, and Gauff, who covers the court impressively, put enough balls back into play to keep the set locked. Eventually, though, the American’s struggles on serve would give Osaka the first set.
In the second, Osaka found her rhythm while Gauff’s service game became even more wobbly. Her first serve percentage dipped dramatically and the match quickly became a rout. Gauff finished the match with seven double faults, losing 6-3, 6-0 in just 65 minutes.
After the match, though, the crowd gave a standing ovation as Osaka comforted her opponent and then asked if they could do the post-match interview together. “She told me I did amazing,’’ Gauff tearfully told Mary Joe Fernández when asked what Osaka had said to her after the match. “And then she asked if I could do the on-court interview with her. I said no, because I knew I was going to cry the whole time. But she encouraged me to do it.”
“When I shook her hand, she was tearing up,” Osaka said later, “I realized how young she was … I wanted her to know that she’s accomplished so much and she’s still so young.” The pair knows each other. They both grew up training in southern Florida, as most tennis prospects do. During Osaka’s interview, she looked to Gauff’s box and congratulated Gauff’s camp, including her parents, her voice breaking, saying how proud she was that both players had made it all the way from the training grounds to primetime in the biggest stadium in tennis.
“I was like, I don’t know why she was crying … you won the match,” Gauff said in the post-match press conference to a chorus of laughs. She said many times that she doesn’t particularly like crying in public, but that she still enjoyed being embraced by Osaka after the loss. “I really thank Naomi for that, because it was a big moment for me … For me, the definition of an athlete is somebody who on the court treats you like their worst enemy, but off the court can be your best friend.”
For a game that is so solidly represented by established figures in both the men’s and women’s games, the night felt like it had outsize importance. Yes, this was a third-round rout, but it showed that the players who succeed Serena won’t only be great competitors, but also figures that fans can grow to love. That’s exactly what the sport needs.
After the match, Gauff was asked to talk about her quick rise; just a year ago, she was fighting through the quarterfinals of the junior tournament. Her response spoke to not just her experience, but the entire’s game ride with Gauff and Osaka.
“A lot can happen in a year.”