The match may have been all about Naomi Osaka, but later she made sure that Coco Gauff was included in the moment.
After defeating American teen sensation Coco Gauff 6-3, 6-0 at the US Open in a much-hyped affair, Osaka's compassion extended well beyond a hug and some words of encouragement at the net. The defending champion, who was the new kid on the block just last year, went up to the 15-year-old Gauff and asked her if she was okay.
"Instead of going into the shower and crying by yourself, just stay here with me. Trust me I've been here before," she consoled Gauff. Osaka then broke protocol and asked for Gauff, who had the crowd right behind her through the contest, to join her for the on-court interview.
- Sloane Stephens (@SloaneStephens) September 1, 2019
While talking to Mary Joe Fernandez, a former player herself, on the mic, Gauff first cried, then recovered, then sobbed a few words of appreciation before giving Osaka another hug. When it was her turn to be interviewed the 21-year-old Osaka, tearing up, acknowledged Gauff's player box, mainly her parents.
- US Open Tennis (@usopen) September 1, 2019
"You guys raised an amazing player. I used to see you guys training in the same place as us. The both of us made it," she said. Fernandez couldn't stop gushing over Osaka's endearing gesture and calling her "a class act."
Only 12 months ago, Osaka was the young player caught in the crosshairs of victory and adulation " for her opponent. Having beaten the crowd favourite Serena Williams in straight sets, in the US Open final last year, Osaka, with the boos directed mainly at the umpire raining down, sobbed uncontrollably while receiving her first Grand Slam trophy. Williams was the elder stateswoman then and the shoulder to cry on. Even before she has defended her Grand Slam, Osaka has already graduated from the University of Grace, looking out for the youngsters in the sport.
Osaka might have felt a sense of dÃ©jÃ vu when she walked in for the match against Gauff. Like, the last time she had played a night match at the Arthur Ashe Stadium, she was up against an American sweetheart and (coach) Patrick Mouratoglou was in the player box. It was another battle of generations: the present vs the future. In front of the Saturday night crowd, it was showtime.
But the stakes were much lower this time around. Rather than fighting for a title, Osaka would jostle with Gauff for a fourth-round spot. Rather than fighting against the greatest of all time, Osaka would battle against her American heir apparent. Osaka was the big favourite, Gauff a breakout challenger.
Even though the Japanese player didn't quite pull off as clean a performance as she had against Williams in last year's final, she made sure she had her nose ahead in the contest at all times. Right off the blocks, Osaka converted on a break point opportunity in the very first game as Gauff served in a double fault. While the world No 1 Osaka was dominating from the baseline and winning their backhand exchanges, there were also multiple times when she was surprised by the depth of Gauff's strokes.
The first set eventually turned into a 'save your serve' contest. Osaka, whose sure-fire serves had been one of the biggest weapons against Williams, struggled to land it on the first attempt. In the opening set, her first serve percentage was a lowly 52 and the American cashed in on the weaker second serves, directing her returns straight at Osaka's feet. There were a total of five breaks of serve in the set, including three in a row that gave the world No 1 a crucial 5-3 lead.
A shaky Osaka started the ninth game with a backhand error and double fault to slip to 0-30. But the 15-year-old Gauff, who has given a measure of her mature game in her first two Grand Slam outings, let her back into the game with two errors of her own. Osaka carved out a set point by opening up the court with a forceful forehand and killing off the point at the net. Gauff couldn't quite handle a forehand Osaka sliced her way and sent the ball into the net to see her opponent take the lead.
The American simply faded away in the second set. She had only six of her 20 first serves land in, sent in five double faults, won six of 20 points on serve and hit 13 unforced errors (against four winners). Osaka held at love in the sixth game to finish off the match in an hour and five minutes. There were only stray claps from the crowd, who had come for a much keener battle.
"I think this is the most focused I have been since Australia," said Osaka, who hit five aces and 24 winners in the match. "I am sorry for playing you in this mentality," she told Gauff, who now has a new catch-phrase, 'Call me Coco.'
A minute later, when Fernandez asked the Japanese about playing against Belinda Bencic in the fourth round, Osaka backed out. "My brain's not working anymore!" she said.
Yet another example of what makes Osaka, well, Osaka. She can go from lyrical to brain freeze in a New York minute. Osaka may not yet be the champion for all seasons, but she stands for all that is good and great about tennis.