When it was all over, there was hardly a dry eye in the house that is Arthur Ashe Stadium.
On Saturday night, Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff squared off against one another in a primetime match that would determine a spot in the US Open fourth round. But it felt bigger than just that.
Osaka, the world number one and the Open's defending champion, versus Gauff, the upstart 15-year-old that has taken not just the tennis world, rather the sports world by storm this summer. The present and future of women's tennis was on full display.
Osaka enforced her will from the start and never let up. She broke Gauff in her opening service game and quickly built a 3-0 lead in the opening set, and despite giving the break back, Gauff was never able to establish her self on serve, The reigning US Open winner broke six times on her seven chances, and won the match’s final eight games to win the much-anticipated match 6-3, 6-0 in just one hour and five minutes.
“I haven’t played a night match on Ashe since last year. I felt the atmosphere was, of course, going to be very different. I think the day crowds and the night crowds are very different here,” said Osaka. “I’m just out here trying my best. I don’t know. I’m just going with the flow at this rate. I’ve never defended a Grand Slam before. We out here, you know. We’re just having fun.”
On the court she was unrelenting, but when the match was over, Osaka was caring. With a tearful Gauff sulking in her loss by her bench, Osaka went over to her and asked her to the traditional on-court interview with her.
“I was wanting to leave the court because I’m not the type of person who wants to cry in front of everyone. I didn’t want to take that moment away from her, as well,” said Gauff. “She told me it’s better than crying in the shower. She convinced me multiple times to stay. I kept saying no. Finally I said, ‘Ok, I’ll do it.’ Because I didn’t know what to do. I’m happy that she kind of convinced me to do it because, I mean, I’m not used to crying in front of everyone.”
The emotions of the two players were felt by the already-engaged Ashe crowd and created one of those special moments that transcend the sport itself.
“It was kind of instinctive because when I shook her hand, I saw that she was kind of tearing up a little. Then it reminded me how young she was,” said Osaka. “I was just thinking it would be nice for her to address the people that came and watched her play. They were cheering for her.”
At just 21-years-old, Osaka was the elder on-court consoling her 15-year-old opponent. She understood the spotlight and attention that had been placed on Gauff this summer, especially here during the past week at the US Open.
Osaka could flashback to a year ago when the emotions of the Ashe crowd were volatile, during the finals against Serena Williams where at times they turned hostile towards Osaka, even booing during the trophy presentation.
“For me, the definition of an athlete is someone who treats you as their worst enemy on the court, but after they treat you like you’re their best friend,” said Gauff. “That’s what she did.”
That’s exactly how Osaka approached the match.
“I used to see you guys training in the same place as us,” Osaka said of growing up playing on the same Florida courts as Gauff. “The both of us made it and are working as hard as we can. I think this is the most focused I have been since Australia. I am sorry for playing you in this mentality. It was super fun.”
Not to be lost in all the sportsmanship and touching moments that concluded the match is the sheer dominance on the court of Osaka. She blasted 24 winners and pounced on Gauff’s serve from start to finish, displaying the sort of play that led her to winning back-to-back Grand Slam titles in the last 12 months.
She seems to be hitting her stride as we enter the second week of the US Open, and will now face off against Switzerland’s Belinda Bencic. The 13th seed advanced when Estonia’s Anett Kontaveit withdrew with an illness.
“Playing her is always super challenging. I’m unsure if I’ve ever won a match. I know that I lost the two times we played earlier this year,” said Osaka. “For me, I just expect a fight. She doesn’t really ever give up. She kind of fights for every point. I know that’s going to be a really difficult match for me.”
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for Long Island Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.