Sports · August 5, 2022

Coco Gauff vs. Naomi Osaka could be a rivalry in the making

Perhaps, a few years into the future, if Coco Gauff continues to fulfill the fate some have predicted for her, her victory over Naomi Osaka, 6-4, 6-4, Thursday night will serve as a moment of passing the torch.

Or maybe it will just be Chapter 4 in a rivalry that will span decades. Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova played 80 games in the 70s and 80s, 60 times in the final. A lot of tennis fans are hoping for something like this from Gauff and Osaka, especially after Gauff’s nervous win in San Jose, California at the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic, one of several tuning tournaments for the US Open.

Gauff, who is still only 18 even though she looks like she’s been around for a while now – because, well, she has been – jumped in the lead, beating her powerful serve, especially as she sealed the final game of the first set. . It looked like she would achieve victory, building a 5-1 lead in the second set. Osaka was serving at 0-40.

But then Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam champion who is returning from an Achilles tendon injury suffered in the spring, got animated. She saved four match points in that game and then three more in the next two by closing the gap at 5-4 before Gauff finally put the game away.

“You know certain players, no matter what the score, it’s going to be tough,” Gauff said at a post-match press conference. “I’m Naomi. She could have easily thrown in the towel, but she didn’t. “

After it was over, Osaka said she realized during the game that she had been letting people call her “mentally weak” for a long time.

“I forgot who I was,” said Osaka, 24, who took several months off last year while struggling with mental health. “I feel the pressure doesn’t beat me. I’m under pressure. “

There are many professional tennis tournaments throughout the year that are eminently jumpable for a variety of reasons: low stakes, lack of star power, not much money at stake. But this year’s Silicon Valley Classic far outweighed its weight. A stacked draw – top ladies could choose to play this week in hot Washington, DC or temperate Northern California – has provided matchups worthy of the last rounds of Grand Slam tournaments since the beginning.

Gauff vs Osaka was a round of 16 match. Gauff, 11th-placed, will play in the quarter-finals on Friday night against fourth-placed Spanish Paula Badosa, winner of last year’s BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California. It’s a matchup that Gauff is enjoying for a variety of reasons.

“Strong players and playing semi-highs like this in the US Open warm-up tournaments is what I’m asking,” he said Thursday night.

Because Gauff is still so young, his every match is both a singular sporting event and part of a larger process. He reached his first Grand Slam single final at the French Open in June, where he lost to world number 1. 1, Iga Swiatek of Poland. She fell in the third round at Wimbledon in a tough battle against Amanda Anisimova, another up and coming American youngster.

Gauff said Thursday night that he learned from the defeat to Anisimova that even against a powerful baseline she had to remain aggressive and not take on the role of counter striker. She has spent the past three weeks training up to eight hours a day in Florida to prepare for the summer hard court swing in North America. You said you felt the work paid off against Osaka, one of the biggest baselines in the game.

“I won rallies more than her,” he said of Osaka. “There is still a long way to go before the US Open, but this is a good start for me.”

At the same time, on Thursday night, there were several times when Gauff said he got a healthy reminder that it’s not just about wins and losses. Gauff and Osaka regularly speak out on social issues, including human rights, gun violence and the right to abortion. As they walked onto the pitch, the players saw a fan holding a sign showing pictures of both of them and the words “Thank you for being you”.

“These kinds of messages are really important to us,” Gauff said. “It shows that people support us not only for our career, but also for what we do off the pitch.”

And for what it’s worth, Gauff and Osaka are now all two wins each.