On a day of major upsets, defending champion Naomi Osaka was added to the list of casualties after going down in straight sets to the teenage phenom, Coco Gauff, at the Australia Open, joining the departed Serena Williams and Madison Keys on the sidelines on Friday.
Definitely [this win] has to be somewhere around the top. I thought I played really well today and I was pretty composed and really calm. I was ready for the pace of her ball. She definitely plays faster than most players. I think at US Open I wasn't really prepared for that. And today I definitely showed that I worked on that in the off-season. Coco Gauff
The unseeded 15-year-old American said she was in disbelief after beating the World No 4, 6-3 6-4, in a major upset on Friday.
The youngest player in the draw, Gauff, who is making her Melbourne debut this year, avenged the heavy defeat she endured at the hand of the Japanese at last year’s US Open.
Gauff now plays compatriot and 14th seed Sofia Kenin, conquerer of China’s Zhang Shuai, 7-5 7-6(7), in the 4th round after a comprehensive victory, which underlines her rare talent.
This was the second instalment of a budding rivalry between Gauff and Osaka that could light up tennis for the next decade, having previously met at the US Open, where the 22-year-old Japanese won easily.
On that occasion it was the teenager who struggled with nerves, but the tables were turned this time.
Even so, the scale of the achievement had not fully set in for Gauff, the youngest woman to beat a top-five opponent since Jennifer Capriati defeated Gabriela Sabatini at the US Open in 1991.
“On the court I was definitely, what is my life? All these people clapping for me,” she said. “I’m still new to this, but I’m sure I’m not used to it.”
She was in such shock afterwards, adding: ”I don’t even remember what I did, but I think I was more in disbelief so I didn’t really know what to do.”
Just hours after Wang Qiang had beaten Serena in 3 sets at Rod Laver Arena, Gauff blew the second quarter of the women’s draw wide open.
She needed just 67 minutes to make it through to the second week of a Grand Slam event for the second time, having also reached the 4th round at Wimbledon last year.
When Gauff and Osaka last met, the teenager struggled to land first serves or win many of the points when she did, and also could not live with the Japanese’s explosive power.
This time around, just 4 months later, the improvement in Gauff’s game is jaw-dropping.
Serving bigger, she landed 75 per cent of her first serves and began far more rallies on the front foot, matching Osaka from the back of the court, and while she only finished with 6 winners to her opponent’s 17, she forced 24 errors from the Osaka racket compared to 11 of her own.
“Oh my god, I don’t even know [where that performance came from] … honestly like, what is my life?” Gauff laughed on court.
“Two years ago, I lost first round in juniors. And now I’m here. This is crazy. Oh my gosh, I’m on Rod Laver Arena, like, I can’t believe this…”
It seemed as if Osaka would eventually get her teeth into the match but despite beginning on her toes and determined on being the aggressor, it became apparent that her game was off as the set unfolded.
Plus Gauff was not going to be bullied on this occasion and she capitalised on Osaka’s errant backhand, which handed the American a break point in the 8th game, while another miss hand her a 5-3 lead.
More backhand errors flowed in the following game and the teenager snatched the opening set.
Osaka basically unraveled at the beginning of the second, dumping a forehand volley into the net and jerking a forehand wide to give Gauff an early break.
So steady throughout the majority of the match, Gauff’s one wobble came when, leading 6-3, 1-0, 40-15, she double faulted, and then did so again a few points later, to hand the break straight back to the No 3 seed.
Osaka’s backhand woes resurfaced and she was unable to generate any momentum as Gauff broke serve once more, and never looked back.
Serving for the match at 5-4, the prodigy didn’t drop a point and unlike the emotional celebrations after her victories at Wimbledon and the US Open, Gauff was more understated, perhaps a sign she has truly arrived.
“Definitely [this win] has to be somewhere around the top,” Gauuf told the media later. “I thought I played really well today and I was pretty composed and really calm.
“[This time I was ready for] the pace of her ball. She definitely plays faster than most players.
“I think at US Open I wasn’t really prepared for that. And today I definitely showed that I worked on that in the off-season.”
By contrast, Osaka arrived at her press conference shortly after departing the stadium, a little shell-shocked.
“Her serve is way better than I played her last year,” she observed.
“You don’t want to lose to a 15-year-old, you know. But I guess that’s for me, like, a reality check.
“It doesn’t really matter the age of the opponent. Of course she deserves to be here. She played her matches. I just have to work harder.
“I love her, but I don’t like this feeling of losing to her.”
Elsewhere, Maria Sakkari, the No 22 seed, has become an Aussie fan favourite, especially among the Greek contingent, and they had plenty to cheer about on Friday when she upset Madison Keys, the 10th seed, 6-4 6-4.
“I love them, they’re the best,” Sakkari said of her fans.
“It’s always for me very special to come back here because it’s like playing at home for me.
“Because unfortunately we don’t have a tournament yet in Greece, hopefully soon. So I really love them and they really make me play better and feel better on court. I really have only positive things to say about them.”
Her win over Keys takes Sakkari into the second week of a major tournament for the first time in her young career.
“I have been struggling a lot at every Grand Slam,” she said during her on-court interview. “I was getting stuck at the third round, so I’m so happy to be through to the fourth round! It was a great day for me, and a great crowd.”
Sakkari was playing a Grand Slam 3rd round for the 8th time in her career, and finally broke through in emphatic fashion, booking a Round of 16 clash with 2019 runner-up Petra Kvitova after an hour and 15 minutes on Margaret Court Arena.
Sakkari and Keys were facing off for the first time, and while the Greek No 1 had enjoyed a solid start to the 2020 season, pushing Osaka to 3 sets at the Brisbane International, the American had been in stellar form, finishing runner-up to Karolina Pliskova at that same event.
Neither had dropped a set en route to the 3rd round, and thee were set to do battle with their contrasting styles.
Sakkari’s heavy topspin proved potent early as she scored the first break of the match and raced ahead 5-2 in the opening set.
Keys, a former semi-finalist in Melbourne who won the biggest title of her career last summer at the Western & Southern Open, did her best to reduce the deficit, breaking Sakkari as she served for the set and put down a decisive love service hold to narrow the gap.
Sakkari responded with aplomb, earning 2 set points on her second chance to serve out the set, moving ahead on her 3rd set point.
The second saw the American nonetheless capitalise on her late momentum, moving ahead 4-2 as a deciding set seemed likely, but Sakkari was undaunted, breaking straight back and rolling through the final 4 games of the match, saving a break point in the final game to secure victory to the delight of the many Greek fans in the crowd.
In all, Sakkari hit 9 errors to 21 unforced errors, half of Keys’ totals, 17 and 40, respectively, and she won 15 of 21 points played on the American’s serve, which she broke broke 4 times during the match.
Kvitova, who comprehensively beat Russia’s Ekaterina Alexandrova, 6-1 6-2, stands between Sakkari and a first Grand Slam quarter-final.
The duo last played in Cincinnati back in August, where the 24-year-old won in three hard-fought sets.
“It’ll be another tough match and another big hitter. We’ve played multiple times. I really want to enjoy my day today and not think about my next round, so I’ll start thinking about my next match on Sunday morning. I just want to enjoy Melbourne and all of the people here.”
World No 1 Ashleigh Barty needed just 2 sets to stop No 29 seed Elena Rybakina and make her way to the round of 16 on Friday, surviving a stern test from on-the-rise Kazakh, 6-3 6-2.
Barty delighted fans on Rod Laver Arena with a commanding display of her all-court tennis, firing 28 winners and breaking Rybakina 5 times to seal the victory after 78 minutes.
“I think today was probably my sharpest match that I played,” Barty told press afterward. “I felt really comfortable moving around the court.
“I felt like I found the middle of the racquet a lot sooner than my other matches.
“Particularly there were tough, long service games. I was able to get out of them and continue the momentum. I think all in all it was a pretty well-rounded performance.”
Rybakina showed her high level in the early stages of the match, breaking Barty to love in the opening game and staying toe-to-toe with the top seed.
The pair traded breaks twice in a row, with Barty having to level back each time to make it 2-2.
Having such a dialled-in challenger seemed to galvanise Barty, who relishes a challenge, and she raised her level after claiming her hard-fought 2nd break.
Rybakina struggled to match the Aussie’s pace, who won 12 of 14 points at the net, as Barty reeled off the next 4 of 5 games to seal the opening set.
Barty was under pressure for most of the second, despite claiming an early advantage with a break at 1-0.
Rybakina put up a marathon effort a game later, pushing Barty to deuce 6 times and earning 3 break points, but the Aussie’s powerful serve bailed her out of trouble to make it 2-0.
After extending her lead to a commanding double break, 4-1, Barty found herself having to pull off the same escape act again, dodging 3 more Rybakina break opportunities to stay in front.
Saving another break point, the 8th of 10 she faced, while serving for the match, Barty punched her ticked into the 4th round after 78 minutes on court.
“I think today was cleaner off the ground,” Barty assessed. “I felt more comfortable on my racket. I felt like I could put the ball where I wanted to more often than not.
“It’s more a feeling than anything else. Obviously I’ve been able to find a way and problem solve through a lot of my matches across the last two or three weeks.
“But today, just a feeling for me, felt like it was cleaner than the other matches.”
Barty’s strong serving proved the difference against Rybakina – the Aussie fired 5 aces and landed 65% of first serves in, winning 71% of those points.
As a result, she was only broken twice from 10 opportunities, while Barty broke Rybakina 5 times from 9 chances.
Rybakina fired an impressive 23 winners, but was undone by 30 unforced errors, while Barty kept her numbers more tidy, hitting 28 winners and 16 unforced errors.
As she seeks to return to the quarter-finals for the second straight year, the top-ranked Aussie awaits No 18 seed Alison Riske, who took 3 sets to dispatch Julia Goerges, Barty’s doubles partner, 1-6 7-6(4) 6-2.