Naomi Osaka had earned the right to stand alone in triumph, to celebrate advancing to the fourth round of the U.S. Open after she’d given teen sensation Coco Gauff a powerful example of clutch play and what it takes to be a champion, but she wouldn’t have felt right soaking up the applause when she knew Gauff would be in the locker room sobbing.
They had embraced at the net after Osaka’s masterful 6-3, 6-0 decision, and it was a delightfully heartfelt scene. If they had left it at that, if Gauff had packed up and exited the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium and Osaka had conducted the usual how-did-you-feel TV interviews by herself, it would have been enough to confirm Osaka’s keen empathy and 15-year-old Gauff’s respect for her elders and to declare the future of tennis to be uncommonly bright because it’s on the rackets of these incandescent young talents.
But it wasn’t enough for Osaka. Obeying her instincts and her heart, Osaka approached Gauff with an unusual request.
Stay out here and share the interview with me, Osaka begged. Fans who rooted for you deserve to hear what you’re feeling. They won’t know unless you tell them now. “I wanted her to have her head high, not walk off the court sad,” Osaka said. Gauff, holding back tears but determined not to cry in public, said no. She said it more than once. As she later explained, she didn’t want anyone to think she was stealing Osaka’s glory. Faced with those arguments, Osaka resorted to her most persuasive reasoning.
“She told me it’s better than crying in the shower,” Gauff said with a small smile. “After the match, I think she just proved that she’s a true athlete. 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. I think that’s what she did tonight.”
Osaka became teary-eyed herself when she saluted Gauff’s parents, Corey and Candi. The Gauffs and Osaka’s family had often seen each other at a training center in Delray Beach, Fla., where Coco has become one of the sport’s most promising players and where Osaka honed the skills that carried her to the U.S. Open title last year and the No. 1 ranking in the world. It was almost unfathomable to Osaka that they’d all meet again, at this place, at this time.
“The fact that both of us made it and we’re both still working as hard as we can, I think it’s amazing,” Osaka said, looking at Gauff’s parents. “You guys raised an amazing player.”
Gauff is staggeringly good. But on Saturday, she saw up close what it takes to win a Grand Slam singles event, a feat 21-year-old Osaka has already accomplished twice and is bound to pull off many more times.
Their first set included five service breaks, three of them by Osaka. Gauff’s court coverage was astonishing and her ability to track down and return seemingly sure winners fed the crowd’s loud roars for the long-legged newcomer. Osaka’s edge was her ability to remain composed at the most crucial of moments.
Leading 5-3, she lost the first two points of the next game and then got a time violation warning for taking too much time to serve. Osaka showed no emotion. She didn’t sulk, didn’t get into a dialogue with the chair umpire. She won the next four points to win the game and the set — and followed that by breaking Gauff’s serve to win the first game of the second set.
Osaka then escaped three break points to hold for a 2-0 lead in the second set and broke Gauff’s serve again for 3-0. Gauff undermined her own cause by committing seven double faults that halted any momentum she built, but even if she had served better she wouldn’t have beaten Osaka on this night.
Osaka, who spent part of her childhood in New York and sometimes practiced on the grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, said she never took Gauff’s young age into consideration on Saturday. “I feel like even when you play younger people it’s more of a challenge because they fight — I don’t want to say this, but they might fight harder. They want to have that statement tournament, or whatever,” said Osaka, who hit 24 winners and committed 17 unforced errors. “For me, I just kept telling myself to keep fighting. Literally, that’s what I said during the match. I just kept saying, ‘Fight, fight.’”
That’s the best lesson Gauff can take from this: to fight without pause. She already learned Osaka was right in urging her to stay on the court. Gauff was glad she lingered, but she’s still sorting through all of her emotions. “I’m still a little bit sad because it’s still fairly new,” said Gauff, who is scheduled to team with Caty McNally in a doubles match on Sunday. “I think tomorrow I’ll really cherish the experience. I hope that next year I’ll be able to play on Ashe again.”
Osaka will go on to face No. 13 seed Belinda Bencic, who has beaten her in three of their four career meetings, including at Indian Wells and Madrid this year. “I just expect a fight,” Osaka said. She’s accustomed to that. We could all get accustomed to the kindness and support she and Gauff displayed on Saturday in turning a tennis match into a life lesson.