US Open: Anticipation high as Coco Gauff, Naomi Osaka set to meet in Arthur Ashe Stadium
FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y. — A couple of years ago, when she was a mere 13-year-old, Coco Gauff had the opportunity to hit with a rising Japanese tennis star at the Miami Open. The player was Naomi Osaka.
“I was able to keep the ball on the court,” Gauff said. “I was super nervous. She’s prepping for a tournament so I didn’t want to mess up her practice.”
Osaka has since gone on to become the world’s No. 1 player, and a two-time Grand Slam champion, capturing the first of them here in last year’s title match against Serena Williams. Gauff, now all of 15, has gone on to become perhaps the most talked-about player at this year’s US Open, which is what happens when you are a breathtakingly talented kid who made it to the round of 16 at her first Wimbledon, and who has made it to the round of 32 here, in her first senior US Open.
So it figures to be a delicious renewal of acquaintances Saturday night, when Osaka and the 140th-ranked Gauff meet in Arthur Ashe Stadium for what will be the most anticipated showdown in the first week of America’s Grand Slam.
It will be the Ashe Stadium debut for Gauff, who won her first two matches amid raucous support in Louis Armstrong Stadium. The round of 16 on Labor Day awaits the winner.
“She’s an amazing player,” Gauff said of Osaka. “She’s only 21. We’re both pretty young, but I’m a little bit newer to the game. So I’m just curious to see how my game matches up against her.”
Coco Gauff, shown Wednesday night, is drawing huge crowds at the U.S. Open. (Photo: Danielle Parhizkaran, USA TODAY Sports)
After a scintillating performance in her second-round triumph over Hungarian qualifier Timea Babos on Thursday night, Gauff teamed with Caty McNally, her doubles partner and 17-year-old elder, to begin their competition some 18 hours later. Winners of the Open junior doubles title last year, Gauff and McNally captured their first WTA title earlier this month in Washington, and started auspiciously before a SRO crowd on Court 5 Friday, fending off four set points in the first set and going on to beat Julia Goerges and Katerina Siniakova, 7-6 (6), 6-2.
An all-court player and emergent talent in her own right, McNally has been coached by her mother, Lynn McNally, from the first time she held a racquet as a toddler. A former collegiate player who was briefly on the tour, Lynn McNally has a keen, analytical eye.
“I think Coco has a good shot at beating (Osaka),” McNally told USA TODAY Sports. “She has so much belief in herself and her game. What does she have to lose?”
Martin Blackman, USTA’s general manager of player development, agreed in a phone interview.
“I think Coco’s game matches up really well with Osaka’s,” Blackman said. “Osaka is a great player. You don’t win two Grand Slams without being a great player. She’s got great power from both sides, but Coco absorbs really well. I think it’s going to come down to who can create more pressure.”
The Osaka-Gauff intersection has layers beyond the players’ mutual admiration. Osaka has lived and trained for years in South Florida, not far from Gauff’s Delray Beach home. Corey Gauff and Leonard (Max) Francois, the players’ fathers and coaches, are close friends who talk often. Coco Gauff says Osaka’s mother, Tamaki Osaka, “is one of the nicest people ever.”
Naomi Osaka returned the compliment to young Gauff, and is eager to see her game from across the net.
“For me, when I hear people talking about someone, I want to have the opportunity to play them just to assess it for myself,” Osaka said.
Jean-Christophe Faurel, who coaches Gauff alongside her father, is eager to see how his pupil responds to the next challenge, and is certain that even the spectacle of playing in cavernous Ashe Stadium – capacity 23,771 – won’t faze Gauff.
“It’s just the beginning,” Faurel told USA TODAY Sports in the Open Players’ Garden on Friday. “If she continues to work at it and get better, she’s going to be out there a lot in the next 15 to 20 years. You have to start somewhere.”
Follow Wayne Coffey on Twitter @wr_coffey
Source: Read Full Article