Maybe, some years in the future, if Coco Gauff goes on to fulfill the destiny that some have predicted for her, her win over Naomi Osaka, 6-4, 6-4, on Thursday night will serve as a torch-passing moment.
Or maybe it will just be Chapter 4 in a rivalry that will stretch for decades. Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova played 80 matches during the 1970s and 1980s, 60 times in finals. Plenty of 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 tuneup tournaments for the U.S. Open.
Gauff, who is still just 18 even though she seems like she has been around for a while now — because, well, 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 the victory, building a 5-1 second-set lead. Osaka was serving at 0-40.
But then Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam champion who is coming back from an Achilles injury she suffered in the spring, came alive. She saved four match points in that game and then 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 post-match news conference. “It’s Naomi. She could have easily threw in the towel, but she didn’t.”
After it was over, Osaka said she had a realization during the match that for a long while now she has 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 like the pressure doesn’t beat me. I am the pressure.”
There are plenty of professional tennis tournaments during the year that are eminently skippable for any number of reasons — low stakes, a lack of star power, not much money on the line. But this year’s Silicon Valley Classic has punched far above its weight. A stacked draw — top women could choose to play this week in steamy Washington, D.C., 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 quarterfinal against the fourth-ranked Paula Badosa of Spain, the winner of last year’s BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif. It is a matchup Gauff is relishing for a number of reasons.
“Tough players and playing high seeds like this in warm-up tournaments for the U.S. Open is what I ask for,” she said Thursday night.
Because Gauff is still so young, her every match 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 the world No. 1, Iga Swiatek of Poland. She fell in the third round at Wimbledon in a tough battle against Amanda Anisimova, another young rising American.
Gauff said Thursday night that she had learned from the loss to Anisimova that even against a powerful baseliner she needed to remain aggressive and not assume the role of the counterpuncher. She spent the past three weeks training as long as eight hours a day in Florida to get ready for the summer hardcourt swing in North America. She said she felt the work paying off against Osaka, one of the game’s greatest baseliners.
“I was winning the rallies more than she was,” she said of Osaka. “A lot more to go before the U.S. Open, but this is a good start for me.”
At the same time, there were several moments on Thursday night when Gauff said she got a healthy reminder that she is 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 walked onto the court, the players saw a fan holding a sign that showed pictures of both of them and the words “Thanks for being you.”
“Those kinds of messages are really important to us,” Gauff said. “It shows that people are not just supporting us because of our career but because of what we do off the court as well.”
And for what it’s worth, Gauff and Osaka are now all even at two wins apiece.