(NEW YORK (AP) – It’s rather rare that a third-round Grand Slam match involving a player ranked merely 140th and playing in her second major tournament would generate a ton of buzz.
When that player is Coco Gauff, though, the calculus changes. And when her opponent is the U.S. Open’s defending champion and No. 1 seed, Naomi Osaka, well, the hype and hyperbole are bound to be limitless.
In this case, it might just be justified.
”I definitely think it’s the future of women’s tennis,” 23-time major champion Serena Williams said Friday after winning her third-round match. ”And I’m really excited to just be a `fan girl’ and kind of watch.”
These are two of the most dynamic young players on tour at the moment and Saturday night’s showdown at Arthur Ashe Stadium in the round of 32 might just be the start of a rivalry between the 15-year-old Gauff and Osaka, who is the grizzled veteran in this one at 21.
”They both have something to prove in this match,” said Chris Evert, who won six of her 18 Slam trophies in New York and is calling matches for ESPN. ”Coco will really get an accurate reading on where she is, compared to the other women. And Naomi has something to prove, too. She has to prove that she’s really No. 1 in the world and that, even though she’s had a mediocre year (lately), she can still find that `A game’ when she needs to.”
The two players have known each other for a while now, even practicing together at the Miami Open when Gauff was 13. Their fathers are friends.
Osaka, who’s been wearing a black sleeve on her problematic left knee, looks out for Gauff in the locker room.
Gauff looks up to Osaka.
”She’s a big inspiration for everyone,” said Gauff, who teamed with 17-year-old Caty McNally to win a first-round doubles match Friday. ”She’s 21. She has two Slams. She’s still (striving) for more.”
Both are, of course.
Osaka followed up her major championship breakthrough in New York a year ago – who could forget that chaotic final against Williams? – by adding a second trophy at the Australian Open in January, then becoming the first player representing Japan to ascend to No. 1 in the rankings.
What got lost amid the controversy in 2018 was how supremely well Osaka played, essentially producing a better version – for that evening, at least – of Williams’ power-based game, filled with dangerous serves, booming groundstrokes and confident court coverage.
Gauff can wallop a ball, too, which became apparent during her fascinating trip to Wimbledon in July.
She arrived there ranked 313th, recipient of a wild card from the All England Club into qualifying. Gauff, who is based in Florida, was a known quantity in the tennis world, having been a junior runner-up at the U.S. Open two years ago and a junior champion at the French Open last year, but not the world at large, which quickly learned all about her.
First came a victory over Williams’ older sister, five-time Wimbledon champ Venus. Then came two more wins against older, more experienced players, before it took the eventual champion, Simona Halep, to put an end to the riveting run in the fourth round.
Gauff is now ranked 140th, which would have been too low to get her into the field at Flushing Meadows, but the U.S. Tennis Association opted to ignore the WTA’s age eligibility rule limiting how many wild cards someone her age can be offered and gave her one, anyway.
”Coco’s … obviously the underdog at this point, but I’m excited to watch it,” said Kathy Rinaldi, the USTA’s head of women’s tennis and Fed Cup captain. ”It’s two very talented, young players. It’s going to be fun.”
Gauff sure looks as if she belongs, having gutted out a pair of three-setters so far.
Osaka has the edge in experience and accomplishments, but hasn’t played at her highest level this week.
”Coco is playing like a top-20 player now. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if she did win the match, from just the way she’s been playing and what I’ve seen. On the other hand, this is just the type of match Naomi Osaka will get psyched up for and maybe we’ll see her best tennis – because we really haven’t seen it here,” Evert said.
”Even though they might downplay it, believe me, it’s a pressure match for both of them,” she said. ”You know there’s going to be that electricity, because everyone’s seeing the future for maybe the first time.”