Naomi Osaka looked across the net after ending Coco Gauff’s U.S. Open in the third round Saturday night and saw the tears welling in the 15-year-old’s eyes.
Osaka also saw a bit of herself in the kid she’d just beaten 6-3, 6-0.
So the tournament’s defending champion and No. 1 seed, who is only 21 herself, comforted Gauff with a hug and words of consolation, then encouraged her to address the 23,000 or so folks in the Arthur Ashe Stadium stands who were pulling for the young American. Knowing how tough it is to lose, Osaka told her: “You need to let those people know how you feel.”
So Gauff obliged — a rare instance of a match’s loser addressing the crowd from the court. And was appreciative of Osaka’s gesture.
“She just proved that she’s a true athlete. For me, the definition of an athlete is someone who on the court treats you like your worst enemy, but off the court can be your best friend,” Gauff said later at her news conference. “I think that’s what she did tonight.”
It’s that sort of maturity off the court, and a wise-beyond-her-years game on it, that has helped Gauff generate all sorts of attention already. She was the youngest woman since 1996 to win two matches at Flushing Meadows, her follow-up to a captivating run to the second week at Wimbledon in July.
In this much-hyped showdown under the lights, Gauff often looked exactly like what she is: an immensely talented player who is still learning her way at tennis’ top level.
“We definitely know what we’ve got to work on,” Gauff’s father, Corey, said. “She wanted to win the match. It wasn’t, ‘See how well you can do.'”
Gauff pounded serves at up to 119 mph but also double-faulted seven times.
She overcame a slow start to get within 4-3 in the opening set but also dropped the last eight games.
Don’t forget: The U.S. Open was only the second Slam for Gauff, who was ranked No. 313 at the start of Wimbledon and is now No. 140.
Osaka’s advantages in age and accomplishments — she is a two-time major champion, including at the Australian Open in January — played a role. So, too, did her on-target power, which resulted in a 24-8 edge in winners.
“For me, this is the most focused I’ve been since Australia,” said Osaka, who’s had an up-and-down season since earning that trophy and is wearing a black sleeve on the left knee that’s been problematic lately.
Addressing Gauff, she said: “I’m so sorry for playing you (with) this type of mentality.”
When it ended, after merely 65 minutes, Gauff began to bawl on the sideline. Osaka approached her and they spoke, briefly, then later cried, too, while addressing Gauff’s parents on-court.
“For me, it’s crazy to me to see how far she’s come in such a little amount of time,” said Osaka, who was born in Japan and moved to the U.S. when she was 3.
Both players are based in Florida now and have known each other for a few years. Their fathers are friends.
“She was crying; she won. I was crying. Everybody was crying,” Gauff said. “I was like, ‘You won the match!'”
Gauff acknowledged feeling some jitters at the outset, and Osaka produced the match’s initial seven winners.
It took all of 10 minutes for Osaka to lead 3-0.
When Gauff did claim a game, she did so with a couple of exclamation points in the form of aces at 105 mph, then that one at 119 mph. Osaka slumped her shoulders. The crowd roared. It seemed, fleetingly, that this might be a competitive match.
“Next time I play her,” Gauff said, “I’m going to try to come up with a different plan.”
Soon enough, Osaka was edging ahead — and then pulling away, showing the same poise and power that carried her to the championship a year ago in a memorably chaotic final against Serena Williams that ended with spectators booing and both women in tears after the 23-time major champion got into a lengthy dispute with the chair umpire.
On this evening, Gauff’s body language was getting worse and worse, whether it was a slap of her thigh or raising her racket overhead as if contemplating a spike or the palms-up glare toward her parents and others in a courtside guest box to ask why they weren’t giving her more support.
Gauff’s dad said afterward that his daughter might not appear on tour again until next year, because of age restrictions on the women’s tour that limit how many tournaments someone who is 15 may enter.
Next for Osaka is a match Monday against 13th-seeded Belinda Bencic of Switzerland with a quarterfinal berth at stake. Other matchups Monday: American qualifier Taylor Townsend vs. No. 15 Bianca Andreescu of Canada, American wild-card Kristie Ahn vs. No. 25 Elise Mertens, and No. 23 Donna Vekic of Croatia vs. No. 26 Julia Goerges.
Moving into the men’s fourth round were three-time champion Rafael Nadal and 2014 title winner Marin Cilic, who are the only past Grand Slam champs in their half of the draw and now must face each other. Cilic, the No. 22 seed, overcame his own 17 double-faults and withstood 40 aces from 14th-seeded American John Isner to win 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (6), 6-4. With Isner and Tennys Sandgren losing Saturday, zero American men reached the fourth round.
Other winners included No. 6 Alexander Zverev, No. 13 Gael Monfils, No. 24 Matteo Berrettini and unseeded Andrey Rublev, who beat the ever-combustible Nick Kyrgios 7-6 (5), 7-6 (5), 6-3.
Kyrgios is facing a possible suspension after calling the ATP “pretty corrupt” over a $113,000 fine it levied for outbursts at a tuneup tournament. He was relatively subdued Saturday, other than calling a line judge a “whistleblower” for reporting him to the chair umpire for cursing.
There’s always something with Kyrgios, who said afterward his eyes might have had trouble adjusting to the artificial lights in Ashe because he plays too many video games.