Tears, emotions and the future of women’s tennis were on full display during the third round of the U.S. Open at Flushing Meadows on Saturday night. A sold out and very vocal crowd filled Arthur Ashe Stadium to watch world number one Naomi Osaka convincingly defeat 15-year-old American upstart Coco Gauff.
The powerful, precise forehand of Osaka riveted the more defensive minded Gauff, who gamely kept her composure as Osaka jumped to a quick 3-0 lead in the first set. Gauff was able to rally, with the Ashe Stadium crowd fully behind her, and pull to within 4-3 before Osaka reclaimed her footing and closed out the set.
In the second set Gauff, who because of her young age is limited by USTA rules about how many tournaments per year she is able to compete in, began to show her inexperience with several unforced errors. As Osaka went up 4-0 in the second set it was clear that the 21-year-old Osaka was just physically and athletically way ahead of the teenaged Gauff.
Gauff remained stoic during the second set even as she wiped sweat and tears from her eyes as her parents and a very supportive crowd provided a vocal lift. After Osaka closed out the set 6-0, the two met at center court for a large embrace.
But what followed was an awesome display of class that was more real than the usual post-match pleasantries. Osaka pursued Gauff all the way to her chair and asked Gauff to come to center court with her to do a post-match on-court interview, usually reserved only for the winner.
Gauff at first declined, but Osaka told her she would have time to cry in the privacy of the locker room and that she should accompany Osaka to center court for an impromptu interview “so everyone can see how much I respect you,” Osaka was heard to say.
And so the two women walked to center court while receiving a thunderous ovation from the crowd. ESPN’s Mary Jo Fernandez approached for the rarest of post-match interviews. Fernandez then asked Gauff what Osaka had said to her.
“She told me that I did amazing,” Gauff said wiping away tears. “And she asked if I could do an on court interview with her and I said ‘No’ cuz I knew I was gonna cry the whole time doing it but she wanted me to.”
Gauff, who is from Delray Beach, Florida, said she appreciates how much Osaka has been a mentor to look up to.
“I mean it was amazing,” Gauff said of the match. “She did amazing and I’m gonna learn a lot from this match. She’s been so sweet to me. So thank you,” she said to Osaka.
As for Naomi Osaka, she proved why she is the world’s number one with a precision and velocity that combines with her elite athleticism and court mobility. Osaka is the defending U.S. Open champion after she defeated Serena Williams in 2018 during a combative contest that saw Williams receive multiple conduct violations.
Osaka appears headed on a collision course with Serena again at the 2019 U.S. Open and, if both hold to form, they will meet again in the championship round for what would certainly be a must-see rematch.
But today was all about the distant future of tennis and the evolution of women’s tennis that in no small part owes itself to the iconic stature of Serena.
With her 2018 U.S. Open win, Osaka became the first person of Japanese descent to win a Major championship in tennis, men’s or women’s. Osaka has become a global icon and has patterned her game after Serena’s.
Coco Gauff is one of a host of teenagers and young players of color who are taking the circuit by storm. Because of Gauff’s young age, USTA regulations limit the number of tournaments she is able to play during each season so it is possible that she will be sidelined until the Australian Open in January, which is the next major event.
During her post-match interview, Osaka turned to Gauff’s parents.
“I just want to say you guys raised an amazing player,” Osaka said. “I remember I used to see you guys training in the same place as us and, for me, the fact (that) both of us made it and both of us are working as hard as we can, it’s amazing. And Coco, you’re amazing.”