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  • With the atmosphere of a final and a touching moment of sportsmanship, the two young stars offered an exciting glimpse into the future of women’s tennis.
By Stanley Kay
September 01, 2019

NEW YORK — In the end, it was exactly what you’d expect from a U.S. Open match pitting the world No. 1 against a player yet to celebrate her Sweet 16. Defending champion Naomi Osaka drubbed 15-year-old sensation Coco Gauff at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Saturday, advancing to the tournament’s fourth round with a dominant 6–3, 6–0 victory.

But Saturday’s match was anything but routine. It was the most anticipated match of the tournament’s first week, with an atmosphere more befitting a final than the third round. It ended with a touching moment of sportsmanship. Mostly, though, the evening felt like a prelude: It was the first meeting between Osaka and Gauff, but it almost certainly won’t be their last.

“We’re getting a picture of the future of women’s tennis,” 18-time Grand Slam winner and commentator Chris Evert told SI.

The future, yes—but for Osaka, also the present. Only 21, the world No. 1 hasn’t won a title since January’s Australian Open, but after a shaky start to her U.S. Open—she needed three sets to beat Anna Blinkova—she’s rounding into form, dispatching her last two opponents in straight sets. "I honestly think it's been since the Australian Open finals that I was that focused and I was fighting that hard for every point," Osaka said.

Osaka quickly set the tone by breaking Gauff on her first service game, one of six breaks on the night for the defending champion. Gauff won just one game on serve and lost 64% of service points. She stayed competitive in the opening set with two breaks of her own, but Osaka responded each time by breaking back.

“I just kept telling myself to keep fighting,” Osaka said.

Serving at 5–3, Osaka earned set point with a crisp backhand approach winner down the line—one of eight backhand winners on Saturday—and sealed the first set after a Gauff backhand met the net.

Osaka tightened her grip on the match in the second set, breaking Gauff in the opening frame after the teenager double faulted twice. The two-time Grand Slam champion won 28 of 40 points in a lopsided second set, overpowering her opponent and taking advantage of 13 unforced errors from Gauff in the second set alone.

“It was hard for me to take control of the points,” Gauff said. “It was hard to kind of control the rallies. But I think I’ll learn a lot from this match.”

Osaka will face No. 13 seed Belinda Bencic in the fourth round. Bencic has beaten Osaka twice this year, and holds a 3–1 advantage against the world No. 1. But Osaka seems to be finding her game at just the right moment.

“Just getting adjusted to being No. 1 and winning Grand Slams, she’s in a much different situation and position than she was this time last year,” Evert said. “But I think she’s coming around. She’s got game, and she’s got to own it and believe it.”

For Gauff, the defeat marks the end of a breathtaking summer. She has been highly regarded in tennis circles for several years, especially after winning the junior French Open in 2018, but the rest of the world took notice at Wimbledon in July. After Gauff became the youngest woman in the modern era to successfully qualify for the tournament, she reached the fourth round, beating tour veterans Venus Williams, Magdalena Rybarikova and Polona Hercog before losing to eventual champion Simona Halep.

Gauff received a wild card to the main draw of the U.S. Open, and this week she proved she belonged. After rallying to beat Anastasia Potapova in the first round, she topped Timea Babos in three tense sets on Thursday, setting up her clash with Osaka.

“She can dig deep and go up another level,” Evert said. “And that’s what champions do—when their backs are against the wall, they come up with the shots.”

The Summer of Coco might be over, but the hype—even after Saturday’s reality check—is only growing. There’s a cautionary tale here. Tennis, of course, has a history of producing teenage champions: 19 players, including 12 women, won their first major title before their 20th birthday. But for every Serena Williams or Tracy Austin (or Evert, for that matter), there are countless other young prodigies who never lived up to the hype. Even Jennifer Capriati, a three-time Slam winner and a former world No. 1, only achieved success after a long struggle with the pressure of adolescent fame. "I was always expected to be at the top, and if I didn't win, to me that meant I was a loser," Capriati told The New York Times in 1994. "The way I felt about myself had to do with how I played, and if I played terrible I'd say, yes, I can handle it, but really I couldn't.”

Let this be a lesson for players and fans (and the media) alike: The weight of our expectations matters. Even Osaka, after winning the U.S. Open and Australian Open in succession, struggled with the pressure. “I just feel like there has been a weight on me, kind of,” she said after losing in the third round at Roland Garros. It’s part of the reason why John McEnroe said he felt Gauff would benefit from losing on Saturday: “In my opinion, too much too soon, less is more.”

Gauff looks like a legitimate star in the making, and it's hard to watch her without thinking about her immense potential. But occasionally, we’re served with a reminder that she's only a teenager. Like at the net, after Saturday’s match: Gauff, in tears, embracing her opponent; Osaka, comforting her and encouraging her to participate in the on-court interview, an honor typically reserved for the winner; Gauff initially demurring, fearing she’d cry in front of everyone; Osaka, at last, convincing her. Even if the match hadn't lacked for drama, Osaka's gesture of kindness would have been the highlight of the night. 

“When I shook her hand, I saw that she was kind of tearing up a little,” Osaka said after the match. “Then it reminded me how young she was.”

Gauff wept and thanked her opponent. They hugged. Osaka cried, too. They probably weren’t alone in that.   

“For me, the definition of an athlete is someone who on the court treats you like your worst enemy but off the court can be your best friend,” Gauff said. “I think that’s what she did tonight.”

If this is the future of tennis, we have a lot to look forward to.

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