Perhaps, in a few years, if Coco Gauff continues to fulfill the fate some have predicted for her, her victory over Naomi Osaka, 6-4, 6-4 on Thursday night, will serve as a passing moment.
Or maybe this will just be Chapter 4 in a decades-long rivalry. Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova played 80 games in the 1970s and 1980s, 60 times in the final. Many tennis fans are hoping for something like that from Gauff and Osaka, especially after Gauff’s nerve-wracking win in San Jose, California at the Silicon Valley Classic, one of many tune-up tournaments for the US. Open.
Gauff, who is still only 18 even though she seems to have been around for a while now – because, well, she has been – took the lead, hammering her powerful serve, especially as she sealed the final game of the first set. She looked like she was going for the win, building a 5-1 second lead. Osaka served at 0-40.
But Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam champion who is coming back from an Achilles tendon injury she suffered in the spring, came to life. She saved four match points in that game and then three more in the next two as she cut the deficit to 5-4 before Gauff finally put the game aside.
“You know some players, no matter the score, it’s going to be tough,” Gauff said afterwards. “It’s Noémie. She could have easily thrown in the towel, but she didn’t.
After the end, Osaka said that she realized during the match that for a long time she let people call her “mentally weak”.
“I forgot who I was,” said Osaka, who is 24 and took several months off last year to take care of his mental health. “I feel like the pressure doesn’t beat me. I am the pressure.
There are plenty of professional tennis tournaments throughout the year that are eminently skippable for a number of reasons – low stakes, lack of stardom, not a lot of money at stake. But this year’s Silicon Valley Classic has far exceeded its weight. A stacked draw – the top women could choose to play this week in scorching Washington, DC or temperate Northern California – has delivered matchups worthy of the final rounds of Grand Slams from the start.
Gauff against. Osaka was a round of 16 game. Gauff, ranked 11th, was scheduled to play Friday night in the quarterfinals against fourth-seeded Paula Badosa of Spain, winner of last year’s BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif. It was a game Gauff relished for a number of reasons.
“Tough players and playing top seeds like this in US Open prep tournaments is what I’m asking for,” she said Thursday night.
Because Gauff is still so young, each game is both a singular sporting event and part of a larger process. She reached her first Grand Slam singles final at Roland Garros in June, where she lost to the world number one. 1, Iga Swiatek from Poland. She fell in the third round at Wimbledon in a tough battle against Amanda Anisimova, another rising young American.
Gauff said Thursday night that she learned from the loss to Anisimova that even against a powerful baseliner, she should stay aggressive and not take on the role of counter-puncher. She has spent the past three weeks training up to eight hours a day in Florida to prepare for the hard-court summer swing in North America. She said she felt the hard work paid off against Osaka, one of the game’s biggest basemen.
“I was winning rallies more than her,” she said of Osaka. “There’s still a lot to do before the US Open, but it’s a good start for me.”
Meanwhile, there were several moments Thursday night when Gauff said she got a healthy reminder that she’s not just about wins and losses. Gauff and Osaka speak out regularly on social issues, including human rights, gun violence and abortion rights. Upon entering the pitch, the players saw a fan holding a sign showing pictures of the two of them and the words “Thank you for being you”.
“These kind of messages are really important to us,” Gauff said. “It shows that people don’t just support us because of our career, but also because of what we do off the pitch.”
And for what it’s worth, Gauff and Osaka are now tied with two wins apiece.