Although she’s only 21, Naomi Osaka has already acquired two Grand Slam singles titles and acute powers of observation.
The defending U.S. Open champion sees glimpses of herself in 15-year-old Coco Gauff, tennis’ newest young darling, though Osaka never faced the lofty expectations being heaped on Gauff’s still-maturing shoulders. Early fame has contributed to the destruction of more than a few tennis prodigies, leading the women’s tour to limit the number of tournaments young teenagers can play. That reduces their physical stress but not the psychological pitfalls of working in an adult world and facing new and often overwhelming demands on their time. Osaka can guide her through that and reached out to Gauff as one self-contained and introspective soul hoping to connect with another.
“I don’t think anyone would want advice from me though,” Osaka said with a smile, underselling herself -- as usual -- after she fought off early jitters and battled for a 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-2 first-round victory over unseeded but impressive Anna Blinkova of Russia on Tuesday.
“She seems to be doing fine,” Osaka said of Gauff, adding that their fathers “are cool” and know each other. “I think everyone is different in the way they process things. I have actually been trying to talk to her recently because I feel she’s a little bit like me. I saw her in the locker room and she just had her headphones on. I was, like, ‘Oh, looks familiar.’ I just went up and talked a little bit. She’s super sweet. Yeah, and, like, I have actually hit with her back when she was 13.”
Wow, all the way back then.
“She seems to be doing great,” Osaka said, a notion Gauff reinforced Tuesday night by pounding out a 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 victory over 18-year-old Anastasia Potapova of Russia. There were so many requests from media to cover the match that tournament officials invoked a ticket-only rule to control the numbers.
Gauff, an imposing 5 feet 11, was a two-time junior Grand Slam winner and at 13 was the youngest U.S. Open junior women’s singles finalist two years ago. She made her biggest splash to date when she defeated Venus Williams at Wimbledon this year and advanced to the fourth round before she lost to eventual champion Simona Halep. She has a high enough profile that she’s in demand for endorsements and is represented by Team8, the agency co-founded by Roger Federer and his agent, Tony Godsick. She has deals with a pasta company, a shoe company and a racket maker, and she was featured on the cover of a special issue of Teen Vogue gazing fearlessly at the camera.
She started slowly against Potapova on Tuesday but found her footing in the second set, ripping backhands and expanding the variety of her shots. She later credited the crowd that jammed into Louis Armstrong Stadium for giving her energy and inspiration. “After the first set, I was kind of like, I have to reset, stop thinking about what would happen after the match, just think about what I need to do to win the second set,” Gauff said.
Osaka too was tested sternly Tuesday, but she had enough resilience to carry her when her finesse was missing. She saved three set points at 4-5 in the second set and had a match point at 6-5 and 40-30 but couldn’t convert it and eventually lost the tiebreaker. But she broke Blinkova’s serve for a 3-1 lead in the third set and rolled from there.
A year ago Osaka came to the U.S. Open with a three-match losing streak and the modest goal of winning once. It was as much a shock to her as to everyone else that she won it all, dominating Serena Williams in a final turned chaotic by Williams’ overreaction to chair umpire Carlos Ramos’ calls.
Osaka followed her victory at Flushing Meadows by winning this year’s Australian Open and taking over the No. 1 world ranking. Soon after that she parted with her coach, Sascha Bajin, and later flailed a bit, losing in the first round at Wimbledon and the third round at the French Open. She also injured her left knee and wore a brace on it Tuesday. She also wore a target, of sorts, as she tries to become the first woman to win back-to-back U.S. Open titles since Williams won three in a row from 2012-14.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been this nervous in my life. I don’t think I ever really found my rhythm, but I fought as hard as I could and managed to win,” Osaka said. “I definitely didn’t want to lose in the first round.”
She advanced to a second-round match Thursday against Magda Linette, continuing a journey whose course she compared to a book. “It’s not quite done yet. But, I mean, it’s, like, currently being written,” she said. “I don’t know how the ending is going to be. I only know what the chapters are. For me, I’m just reading it, you know?”
Gauff is starting to write her own compelling story, and Osaka will be part of it. “I think she’s doing amazing, obviously. Hopefully I can get to her level,” Gauff said. “She’s amazing. She’s a nice person. I can’t say anything bad about her, her family, because they’ve always been super-nice even since I was 12.”
Put that in the book too. Truth is often stranger than fiction.