When the US Open women’s singles draws were made, one of the biggest clashes earmarked to be a potential cracker was the third-round match between defending champion Naomi Osaka and teen prodigy Coco Gauff.
Even before the match began, Osaka said she saw similarities between herself and the 15-year-old American who took the tennis world by storm by reaching the fourth round of Wimbledon on her Grand Slam debut. Gauff, on her part, was keen to test her game against the world No 1.
It’s the kind of a matchup that even made Serena Williams act like an excited fangirl.
The match, though, was another story as 21-year-old Osaka used her experience and powerful game to blow the teen off the court with a 6-3, 6-0 win. In any other match, this scoreline would have been associated with phrases like ‘reality check’.
But this was not any other match. And it was what happened after the match that made it a truly memorable moment for both players and tennis fans, few who would have seen such a scene before. A moment that transcended sport and competition.
Traditionally, the winner of a match gets an on-court interview while the loser walks away. But when Osaka met Gauff at the net, she asked the teenager to join her with the microphone for the post-match interview. After some reluctance, she agreed and there weren’t many dry eyes during the emotional interview.
“I said no because I knew I was going to cry the whole time,” a tearful Gauff said after her opponent talked her into it.
Osaka, fighting back her tears of her own, spoke to Gauff’s parents, saying, “You guys raised an amazing player. I remember I used to see you guys training. Both of us made it and we’re still working hard.”
It was a touching moment, maybe the most emotional on-court interview we have seen in a long time. Both these young players, women of colour, have been catapulted into fame because of their game.
Osaka has already seen a glimpse of the downside, but in the moment, the interview was about supporting another traveler in the journey of tennis, it was about acknowledging where they come from and the hard yards they and their families had to put in to be at this stage. Both young players training in America who made their names early, in that moment, they were kindred spirits.
A match to learn from
Osaka and Gauff’s fathers – both who helped coach their daughters – know each other even though the players themselves didn’t. They had hit at Miami Open three years earlier and only had nice words to say about each other before.
Once the match began though, Osaka raced ahead. She broke Gauff in the very first game and took a 3-1 lead. But that didn’t stop the teen from attacking for a break back. Cheered on by the packed house, the local favourite stayed in the first set. But four straight breaks later, the top seed served for the set and Gauff didn’t win a game after. The teen had 11 unforced errors in the first set and five double faults in the second coupled with three squandered break points – signs that the occasion perhaps got to her.
There is much to be learned from that scoreline for the former junior world No 1, who is still only 15. She made her Grand Slam debut just over a month ago, has beaten Venus Williams, reached the fourth round and was on the Arthur Ashe playing the world No 1. She was praised for her game by the world’s current top player who saw herself in her. From that perspective alone, it was a good US Open debut run. The fact that she managed to win just three games in incidental to the moment that marked the match.
Less than a year ago, Osaka was almost on the other side of the spectrum. She was playing her first Grand Slam final against Serena Williams, who had 23 Majors. The crowd was not on her side and the mid-match controversy with chair umpire Carlos Ramos made it an even tougher challenge. But as the 20-year-old stood there with tears in her eyes about to lift her first Grand Slam trophy, Serena was the senior player who hugged and murmured some words that made her smile.
The moment has been replayed many times from many different angles but that gesture from a player who Osaka looked up to was important. This match didn’t quite have the same emotional weight but Osaka’s gesture is just as important: comforting a younger rival.
“She told me, ‘It’s better than crying in the shower.’ She convinced me multiple times to stay. I kept saying no. Finally I said, ‘OK, I’ll do it.’ Because I didn’t know what to do.”
The maturity that Osaka showed is a contrast with the child-like enthusiasm she had in her on-court interviews last year. It was a sign of how fast things have changed for the Japanese star. She now has Kobe Bryant and Colin Kaepernick sitting in her player box. But with her vocal support of Gauff even when the American crowd was against her, she showed that while she is still the youngster who quoted Pokemon in interviews and spoke her heart out.
But there was one more moment in the interview that really stood out and should be a warning call for all other players in the women’s draw.
“This is the most focused I’ve been since Australia. Sorry for playing you on this mentality,” said Osaka.
At the Australian Open, she reached her second straight Major final and mounted a third set comeback against a hard-hitting Petra Kvitova. The months after that saw her stumble a little but if she is back at the mental level, there are few players who can stop her from defending her title.