Coco vs. Osaka at US Open could be rivalry's start
ABS-CBN Sports on Aug 31, 2019 06:58 AM
Naomi Osaka, of Japan, returns a shot to Magda Linette, of Poland, during the second round of the US Open tennis championships Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez)
By Howard Fendrich, Associated Press
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.
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.
"Coco's going to have the crowd support. She's obviously the underdog at this point, but I'm excited to watch it," said Kathy Rinaldi, the U.S. Tennis Association's head of women's tennis and Fed Cup captain. "It's two very talented, young players. It's going to be fun."
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 looks out for Gauff.
"I saw her in the locker room. She wasn't really talking to anyone. I was, like, 'Oh, looks familiar. I'm just going to talk to her.' I know she's super young, and I know it's sort of hard to transition," said Osaka, who's been wearing a black sleeve on her problematic left knee.
"I can only imagine, as a junior, you play these tournaments with your friends, and then you come to the pros and you don't know anyone. ... I just (thought), 'Oh, she's a really talented girl. I would love for her to come out of her shell a little bit.' I just realize that's probably what people say about me, too."
Gauff looks up to Osaka.
"She just made it, I guess, possible. Last year (at the) U.S. Open, she wasn't really like a big contender. Obviously now, this year, she is. She had that amazing run, then the final. Honestly, I think she's a big inspiration for everyone," Gauff said. "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 Serena 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.
Sure looks as if she belongs, having gutted out a pair of three-setters so far.
Now Osaka wants to see where the kid's game is these days.
"I would love to play her, of course," Osaka said. "For me, when I hear people talking about someone, I want to have the opportunity to play them, just to assess it for myself. You know what I mean?"