Prime time Saturday night in Arthur Ashe Stadium is one of the highlights of the US Open, especially during Labor Day weekend, and on the bill was the much-anticipated meeting between the World No 1 Naomi Osaka and the precocious young pretender, Cori ‘Coco’ Gauff.
I was wanting to leave the court because I'm not the type of person who wants to cry in front of everyone. She told me it’s better than crying in the shower… Finally, I said okay…I’m happy that she kind of convinced me. Coco Gauff
Mix in that Gauff is an American 15-year old, who is riding the crest of ‘Coco-mania’, is exceptionally talented and mature beyond her years, and you have a match for the history books.
It was enough to give the home crowd a few extra decibels.
Osaka is only 21 years old herself, born in Osaka, Japan, but moved to the USA when she was three years old, holds dual citizenship, and is now playing under the Japanese flag.
The defending champion, who was the new kid on the block just last year, displayed awesome fierceness in play and wonderful compassion when it was all over, defeating the youngster, 6-3 6-0, in an hour and 5 minutes.
In front of the raucous sell-out Saturday night crowd of 23,771, Osaka firmly stamped her authority on the match from the outset by winning the first 3 games.
She had conquered another American crowd favourite in Ashe a year ago, when she beat Serena Williams in the 2018 final for her first Grand Slam title, and while the stakes were lower in this 3rd-round encounter, Osaka’s message was clear from the outset that this was her realm.
It wasn’t easy for the Japanese, though, as the atmosphere was second-to-none, with Coco-mania gripping the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
“Off the court she seems like me,” had said Osaka of Gauff a couple of days earlier. “Well, she seems a little bit more, like, she knows what she’s doing.”
Gauff does indeed know what she is doing, and she narrowed the gap to 2-3 and 3-4, but after the close start, Osaka reeled off the final 8 games of the match, converting 6 of her 7 break points and winning three-quarters of points on her first serve.
Osaka got off to a hot start, cracking 2 backhand winners and 2 aces to hold in the first game, then earning an early break for 2-0 after Gauff double faulted on break point.
Gauff, however, quickly established a foothold, slamming back-to-back aces of her own to get on the board at 3-1, then breaking back for 3-2 after the Osaka error count rose.
That game started a run of 4 consecutive breaks of service, where the rallies favoured the bold returners as each player wobbled when putting their second serves into play.
When the dust settled, Osaka led 5-3 and served for the set, although she had dropped 3 of her last 4 service games.
Osaka faltered at first, pushing a backhand wide and hitting a double fault to fall behind 0-30, but 2 netted errors by Gauff in the next 2 points helped the top seed’s cause.
The Japanese then steeled herself and blasted a backhand winner to create a set point for herself, which she claimed after Gauff hit a backhand error into the net to end the opening stanza.
Osaka did not let up in the very start of the second set, knocking off an atypical drop volley winner to earn 2 break points in the first game, then watching Gauff cede the break to her with her 3rd double fault of the match.
Gauff, however, continued to fight, attacking returns aggressively and earning 3 break points in the very next game.
The defending champion methodically whisked all of those opportunities away, and despite 2 thunderous returns by Gauff after deuce, Osaka tracked down everything the teenager threw at her and held on for 2-0.
It was overall smooth sailing for the top seed from then on, as Osaka broke for 3-0 after Gauff’s errors piled up, and held for 4-0 after a close game by slamming an ace on game point.
Osaka cruised home from there, and the two stars shared a hug and a lengthy chat at the net after their blockbuster match ended in favour of the defending champion.
The top seed’s high-voltage game was on song for most of the match, which she finished with 24 winners to 17 unforced errors.
“I haven’t played a night match on Ashe since last year,” said the reigning champion. “I felt the atmosphere was, of course, going to be very different.
“I think the day crowds and the night crowds are very different here. I mean, everyone was very into this match, I think. For me, I just wanted to see how [Gauff] played. I think that was the biggest thing.”
Osaka has been observing the hype surrounding the young American and had wanted to test herself against her.
Gauff, who is at a career-high ranking of World No 140 after a run to the 4th round of Wimbledon, which captivated tennis fans globally, started strong and matched the World No.1’s solid service speeds throughout, but was ultimately undone by 24 unforced errors, compared to 8 winners.
The match may not have been quite the anticipated classic it had been purported to be, but it will be remembered for the remarkable compassion shown by Osaka afterwards.
She effectively crushed Gauff’s hopes, winning the last 7 points as she had started and finishing strongly, but then, as the players embraced at the net after the match, Osaka invited the 15-year old to speak to the crowd during the post-match interviews.
It demonstrated what a class act Osaka is, humble in victory and understanding of defeat.
“She was crying, she won,” said Gauff later. “I was crying. Everybody was crying.
“I didn’t know why she was crying, I was like, ‘you won the match’…
“I was wanting to leave the court because I’m not the type of person who wants to cry in front of everyone.
“She told me it’s better than crying in the shower… Finally, I said okay…I’m happy that she kind of convinced me.”
Osaka, who has now reached the last 16, later added: “I was just thinking it would be nice for her to address the people that came and watched her play. They were cheering for her.
“For me, I just thought about what I wanted her to feel leaving the court. I wanted her to have her head high, not walk off the court sad.
“I want her to be aware that she’s accomplished so much and she’s still so young.”
Osaka eliminated the star of the first week of the tournament and in so doing, won the hearts of the spectators when she was able to sway a tearful Gauff into joining her for the post-match interview.
They received a huge ovation from the fans in an indelible moment in the history of the tournament.
Osaka explained: “They were cheering for her. I mean, for me, it was just something that was, I don’t know, instinctive I guess.
“I literally was training at the same place as her,” Osaka continued. “It was always just us putting in the most amount of hours. She was always with her dad just practicing. Honestly, I think she was practicing more than me.”
“It’s crazy to me to see how far she’s come in such a little amount of time,” the World No 1 added.
That these two are likely to be career rivals is clear, but that they already share an empathy for each other is heart-warming and may it long continue on a tour where players often seem very remote.
Asked in her post-match media conference if her decision to have a joint-interview was instinctive, Osaka replied; “It was kind of instinctive because when I shook her hand, I saw that she was kind of tearing up a little. Then it reminded me how young she was.
“For me, at least when I lose, I just come into the locker room and I cry, then I do press, like, here. I love you guys, but it’s not the greatest.
“Then I was thinking normal people don’t actually watch the press conferences unless they’re, like, fan fans.
“The people that are out there, they’re probably going to just stay and watch the next person who’s playing, then they go home, and they wouldn’t know immediately what’s on her mind.
“I know that you guys are kind of coming at her with love, too. But I feel like the amount of media on her right now is kind of insane for her age. I just want her to, like, take care of herself.”
Osaka said she was the most focused she had been since her victory at the Australian Open, and her performance reflected that.
She started the match by racing into a 3-0 lead and, after surviving a Gauff revival, never let up in dishing out a bagel in the second set.
Quizzed as to how far she is from being at a level where she can win the slam again, Osaka replied: “The thing with me, though, is I get better as the tournament goes on.
“It’s not even a skill sort of thing, it’s just I trust myself more.”
Osaka will look to make further strides when she faces Belinda Bencic in the last 16.
The Swiss No 13 seed advanced by way of a walkover when Anett Kontaveit withdrew from her 3rd round match scheduled for Louis Armstrong Stadium due acute viral illness.
Kontaveit’s withdrawal only applied to her singles match and not her second-round doubles match scheduled for another day.
Osaka won their first meeting at a Challenger in Alabama way back in 2013, but Bencic has been the victor in their 2 WTA meetings, both coming this season.
“Playing [Bencic] is always super challenging,” Osaka admitted. “I’m unsure if I’ve ever won a match.
“I know that I lost the two times we played earlier this year.
“For me, I just expect a fight. She doesn’t really ever give up. She kind of fights for every point. I know that’s going to be a really difficult match for me.”
Coco Gauff hasn’t been the only fresh American face making news at the Open and through to the 4th round.
Eleven years ago, Kristie Ahn first played the Open and then went west to spend 4 years at Stanford.
After navigating the WTA’s lower level circuit, Ahn has returned and following her straight-set win over French Open champ
Jelena Ostapenko, the New York native reminded the media that her parents had urged her to get a corporate job over tennis.
“I’ve heard from so many people that regret not going for their dreams,” she said.
There is no doubt Taylor Townsend took the path less traveled, with the lefty playing the type of tennis usually associated with short shorts, McEnroe tirades, and splendid Navratilova volleys.
She is a rarity in an era of bam-bam baseline tennis, because Townsend chips her way in.
The Chicago native has long deployed her arsenal of sliding serves and superb volleys, but it hasn’t always been smooth sailing.
After her win over Sorana Cirstea on Saturday, she admitted that not long ago she was ‘grinding away at qualies…My ranking went from 90 to 400 literally over the course of a day…I only won four matches in a calendar year’.
After her victory over Simona Halep, Taylor gushed: “It’s really a great confirmation that this style works…I wouldn’t change anything because I appreciate so much where I am, because I know where I came from.”
Townsend meets Canadian sensation, Bianca Andreescu, seeded 15, in the next mouth-watering encounter for a place in the quarter-finals; while Bencic lies within the sights of Osaka.
Donna Vekic, the 23rd-seeded Croat, dispatched Yulia Puntinseva, 6-6 6-1, and next meets No 23 Julia Goerges from Germany, who upset Kiki Bertens, the No 7 seed from the Netherlands, 6-2 6-3.