Coco Gauff vs.  Naomi Osaka could be a rivalry in the making

Coco Gauff vs. Naomi Osaka could be a rivalry in the making

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

Or maybe it will just be Chapter 4 in a rivalry that will span decades. Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova played 80 matches in 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, still only 18, although she seems like she’s been around for a while now – because she has been – surged to the lead, pounding her powerful serve, especially as she sealed the final game of the first set. She looked like she 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 she suffered this spring, came alive. She saved four match points in that match and saw three more over the next two as she closed the deficit to 5-4 before Gauff finally put the match away.

“You know certain players, no matter what the score is, it’s going to be tough,” Gauff said in a postgame news conference. “It’s Naomi. She could have easily thrown in the towel, but she didn’t.”

After it was over, Osaka said she had a realization during the match that for a long time now, she’s been letting people call her “mentally weak.”

“I forgot who I was,” said Osaka, who is 24 and took several months off last year as she struggled with mental health. “I feel that the pressure doesn’t beat me. I’m under pressure.”

There are many professional tennis tournaments throughout the year that can be skipped for any number of reasons – low stakes, lack of star power, not a lot of money on the line. But this year’s Silicon Valley Classic has punched well above its weight. A stacked draw – top women could choose to play this week in steamy Washington, DC or temperate Northern California – has delivered matchups worthy of the later rounds of Grand Slam tournaments from the start.

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

“Tough players and playing high seeds like this in warm-up tournaments for the US Open is what I’m asking for,” she said Thursday night.

Because Gauff is still so young, each of her matches is both a singular 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 match against Amanda Anisimova, another young American on the rise.

Gauff said Thursday night that she had learned from the loss to Anisimova that even against a powerful baseliner, she had to remain aggressive and not assume the role of counter-player. She spent the past three weeks training as long as eight hours a day in Florida to get ready for this summer’s hardcourt swing in North America. She said she felt the work paid off against Osaka, one of the game’s best baseliners.

“I was winning the rallies more than she was,” she said of Osaka. “There is a lot more left 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 she’s about more than just wins and losses. Gauff and Osaka both regularly speak out on social issues, including human rights, gun violence and abortion rights. As they entered the field, the players saw a fan holding a sign showing pictures of both of them and the words “Thank you for being you.”

“Messages like this are very important to us,” Gauff said. “It shows that people don’t just support us because of our career, but because of what we do off the field as well.”

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

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