April 24, 2024


Perhaps, years into the future, if Coco Gauff continues to fulfill the destiny some have predicted for her, her 6-4, 6-4 victory over Naomi Osaka on Thursday night will serve as a moment she spends with torch.

Or maybe it will just be Chapter 4 in a rivalry that will span decades. Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova played 80 matches during the 1970s and 1980s, 60 times in finals. Many tennis fans are hoping for something like that from Gauff and Osaka, especially after Gauff’s nervy win in San Jose, Calif., at the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic, one of several tune-up tournaments for the US Open.

Gauff, who is still only 18, although it seems like a long time ago – because, well, she was – raced into the lead, hitting her powerful serve, especially as she sealed the final game of the first set. It looked like he would cruise to victory, building a 5-1 lead in the second set. Osaka served at 0-40.

But then Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam champion returning from an Achilles injury suffered in the spring, came alive. He saved four match points in that game and then three more in the next two as he closed the deficit to 5-4 before Gauff finally served out the match.

“You know some players, no matter the score, it’s going to be tough,” Gauff said in a postgame press conference. “It’s Naomi. He could have easily thrown in the towel, but he didn’t.”

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

“I forgot who I was,” said Osaka, who is 24 and took several months off last year as she struggled with her mental health. “I feel like the pressure isn’t getting to me. I’m the pressure.”

There are many professional tennis tournaments throughout the year that can be overlooked for many reasons – low stakes, lack of star power, not a lot of money on the line. But this year’s Silicon Valley Classic has punched above its weight. A stacked draw – the top women could choose to play this week in atmospheric Washington, D.C. or balmy Northern California – produced matches worthy of the later rounds of Grand Slam tournaments from the outset.

Gauff vs. Osaka was a round of 16 match. Gauff, seeded 11th, will play fourth-seeded Paula Badosa of Spain, the winner of last year’s BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California, in Friday night’s quarterfinals. It’s a fight Gauff relishes for a number of reasons.

“What I’m asking is for players to play hard and play like this in a warm-up tournament for the US Open,” he said Thursday night.

Because Gauff is still so young, each of her races is both a unique sporting event and part of a larger process. She reached her first Grand Slam singles final at the French Open in June, where she lost to world No. 1 Iga Swiatek of Poland. She fell in the third round at Wimbledon in a tough battle against Amanda Anisimova, another young rising American.

Gauff said Thursday night that she had learned from the loss to Anisimova that even against a strong baseline she had to remain aggressive and not assume the role of counterpuncher. He has spent the last three weeks training up to eight hours a day in Florida to prepare for the North American hardcourt summer swing. He said he felt the work pay off against Osaka, one of the best players in the game.

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

At the same time, there were several moments Thursday night when Gauff said she got a healthy reminder that it’s about more than wins and losses. Gauff and Osaka speak regularly on social issues, including human rights, gun violence and abortion rights. As they made their way onto the field, the players saw a fan holding a sign showing photos of the two and the words “Thank you for being there.”

“These kinds of messages are really important to us,” Gauff said. “It shows that people don’t just support us because of our careers, but also because of what we do off the field.”

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


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