Kobe Bryant, a successful entrepreneur and enthusiastic tennis player in his post-Lakers life, has co-authored a young adult fantasy novel called “Legacy and the Queen,” about a 12-year-old girl whose passion for tennis inspires her to discover her inner strength. Coco Gauff, 15, and Naomi Osaka, the defending U.S. Open champion at 21, are living that story on the very real courts of Flushing Meadows.
In an intriguing plot twist, Osaka and Gauff won their respective matches on Thursday and will face each other in the third round on Saturday. Osaka, who had a low profile last year as she advanced to her first Grand Slam event title, marveled at the turn of events that brought celebrities such as Bryant and Colin Kaepernick to sit with her team at Louis Armstrong Stadium on Thursday to enjoy her decisive 6-2, 6-4 victory over Magda Linette of Poland. “It’s just crazy who you run into in life,” she said.
Gauff fell awkwardly a couple of times and got few gifts from stubborn Timea Babos in her Thursday evening match but Gauff hit some great angle shots and never got rattled. She’s the youngest player to reach the third round here since 15-year-old Anna Kournikova made it to the fourth round in 1996. “This is just the beginning, I promise,” Gauff told the adoring crowd that jammed into the stadium and chanted her name.
Bryant, who made his NBA debut at 18, knows something about the challenges of being a kid in a world of grownups. He has shared his experiences with Osaka and was pleased she gave a positive review to the book, which will be released next Tuesday by Bryant’s Granity Studios. “Naomi’s been great. We’ve been hanging out quite a bit,” said Bryant, who watched several matches and met a group of local kids from the U.S. Tennis Assn.’s Net Generation program. “I love everything she’s doing, and she’s a big fan of Legacy.”
Osaka is a big fan of Bryant’s. “Kobe gives me real-life advice. He’s someone I look up to as an athlete and also as a person,” she said. “I’m really grateful that I even have the opportunity to, like, talk to him and stuff.”
She was aware he was in the stadium, though she still has difficulty a celebrity would want to watch her, and she wanted to make the experience as enjoyable for him as possible. “Last year compared to this year there is no way Kobe would sit in my box. Kaepernick too,” she said. “For me, it wasn’t pressure. It was just I really didn’t want them to sit in the sun too long, honestly. That was the thing that was on my mind. I was like I don’t really want to play a third set.”
Bryant praised Gauff for her maturity and poise. “She goes out and performs,” he said. “I mean, it’s very, very rare to find an athlete at that age to be so trusting of their skill and to be patient with it. She’s a phenomenon for sure.”
The transition from teen sensation to consistently great performer can be tricky. Gauff, who reached the round of 16 at Wimbledon as a qualifier, appears to have the mentality to back up her talent but success comes with potentially hazardous distractions. “It’s more commitments, more responsibilities, more opportunities. Especially off the court,” Bryant said. “There will be more opportunities for her and she’ll have to pick and choose and weave her way through that so none of those things get in her way of continuing to develop as an athlete. That’s the hardest thing — what to say no to, so it doesn’t compromise your progress as a player.”
Gauff seems to be doing fine. She rallied from a set down in the first round against Anastasia Potapova and didn’t wilt when Babos found another gear in the second set Thursday. “She played amazing. I thought I played well too. It was a great match,” Gauff said.
She’s scheduled to play doubles on Friday with Caty McNally, the impressive 17-year-old who won a set from Serena Williams in a second-round match on Wednesday. She’s not worried about getting tired and believes working on volleys and returns at a fast pace in doubles will prepare her for Osaka’s hard-hitting game. “Obviously she’s an amazing player. She’s defending champion. She’s won two Slams. She’s No. 1,” Gauff said. “She’s only 21. We’re both pretty young. But I’m a little bit newer to the game. So I’m just curious to see how my game matches up against her.”
It’s a matchup that, with any luck, will play out time and again over the years.