MELBOURNE, Australia — After coming back from a 3-0 deficit in the third set of her second-round match for a statement win over Sorana Cirstea at Melbourne Arena on Wednesday, Coco Gauff raised her arms and pumped her fists in victory. She seemed to take a moment to absorb the devoted, near-capacity crowd around her as she looked at her family and team on the other side of the court.
“Oh my gosh, this is amazing,” she said on court immediately after. “I didn’t think I would get this much support in Australia. You cheered me on in this match. I was down 3-0, and you really made me believe. It’s really emotional because I never thought this would happen, just how many people are supporting me.”
Her voice cracked and she appeared to be wiping tears. The match was filled with “Let’s go, Coco!” chants throughout. Hundreds of people lined the stairs until the final moments hoping for a glimpse from the upper decks of the teenage phenom.
Clearly it touched the 15-year-old American, who enamored the world over with her gutsy, fearless playing style and self-belief as she advanced to the fourth round at Wimbledon and the third round at the US Open over the summer of 2019. “Coco-mania,” as it’s affectionately known, has officially reached its third continent and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
But before Gauff had too long to enjoy the fanfare, she was reminded of a stark reality: She would next be facing reigning Australian Open champion and world No. 4 Naomi Osaka in the third round.
While that would be intimidating enough for anyone, it’s particularly daunting for Gauff, who was eliminated by Osaka in spectacular fashion in New York, 6-3, 6-0, in just 65 minutes. In front of 23,000 fans on Arthur Ashe Stadium in a prime-time slot, and after two days of incessant hype and speculation, Gauff finally looked her age and had few answers for Osaka’s relentless game. She lost the first three games in less than 10 minutes and never seemed to find her footing. Gauff was devastated.
“I think I’ll be less nervous this time,” she said Wednesday. “I think US Open I was nervous. It was my first time on Ashe. We’re both familiar with each other’s games. She plays really aggressive. This time coming in I’m going to be more aggressive.
“[I’m] for sure more confident because I felt her ball before. Yeah, I think I’m more confident this time around.”
The result wasn’t what she had hoped, but it was what happened after the match that made their New York clash one for the ages. Osaka consoled Gauff through her tears and brought her onto the court for her postmatch interview. The two stars then were both overcome with emotions as they spoke to ESPN’s Mary Joe Fernandez. The crowd was near silent as it took in every word.
“She did amazing, and I’m going to learn a lot from this match,” said Gauff, as the tears streamed down her face. “She’s been so sweet to me, so thank you for this. Thank you.”
It was a beautiful moment, and a display of sportsmanship at its absolute finest. Osaka, then just 21 herself, proved to be a leader in the sport despite her young age and often introverted personality.
“It was kind of instinctive because when I shook her hand, I saw that she was kind of tearing up a little and it reminded me how young she was,” Osaka said at the time. “For me, I just thought about what I wanted her to feel leaving the court. I wanted her to have her head high, not walk off the court sad. I want her to be aware that she’s accomplished so much, and she’s still so young.”
After Saisai Zheng breaks Naomi Osaka’s serve in the second set, Osaka throws her racket and kicks it before heading to the bench and putting a towel over her head.
While the final score of their first meeting likely will quell some of the expectations for Friday’s match, many will be curious to see just how much Gauff’s game has progressed in the nearly six months since. The notoriously tight-lipped Venus Williams, who lost to Gauff in the first round at Wimbledon and again in Melbourne, didn’t offer much analysis but did provide a few clues on the state of the teenager’s game.
“I think honestly she played really well, consistently, in both matches,” Williams said on Monday. “So I think that was some of the similarities. She just played really well and really focused.
“She’ll play well the rest of the event. … She clearly wants it, works very hard, is extremely mature for her age. I think the sky’s the limit for her.”
Osaka, who beat Saisai Zheng in straight sets on Wednesday, didn’t know who she would yet face when she addressed the media following her win, but she did say she had watched Gauff play Williams on television. Still, she didn’t say much about their potential rematch.
“Yeah, I don’t really know what to think right now,” she said when asked about both of her possible opponents, likely relieved to not have to play into the buildup yet again.
The match will presumably be played on Rod Laver Arena, a court Gauff has never played before. However, now having played on Arthur Ashe in New York and Centre Court at the All England Club, she is getting used to playing on the sport’s biggest stages. She said she is less scared now than she was previously, and insists she is not concerned with the end result.
“I think in general my mindset has always been nothing to lose really,” she said. “Even when in juniors, even though I was ranked pretty high in juniors, I was technically supposed to win. Then I still felt like I had nothing to lose. I still feel that now.
“I think my mindset just is I’m going to fight. If I lose, the world is not going to end. I’m going to have another match in maybe a week or so. I think it’s just less pressure to win. I feel like for me, I’m not trying to win so much but trying to play my best tennis on the court — winning comes with that if I play good.”
15-year-old Coco Gauff reveals that her mom holds her learner’s permit and shares her plans for driving to Chick-fil-A without her parents when she turns 16.
The youngest player in the draw, Gauff is currently ranked No. 67 and will continue to rise in the next rankings, no matter what happens next. She is looking forward to starting doubles play with her close friend Catherine McNally — together known as #McCoco — on Thursday and she hopes they make another deep run together.
Despite it all, she still seems ever the girl next door and a typical teenager. In between questions about her win and facing Osaka, she talked excitedly about working toward getting her driver’s license in hopes of going to Chick-Fil-A by herself without her parents. Her future is clearly bright, on and off the court.
She certainly hopes for a different result on Friday, but Gauff will always remember her first match against Osaka fondly and is proud to have been a part of something so special.
“It was definitely a good moment I think for both of us, especially me,” she said. “But I think more just for the people watching, the little girls watching and little boys who can kind of see what sportsmanship is really.
“I think that’s something if I had a child or something, that’s something I would want my child to see. It just shows what being a competitor really is. You might hate the person on the court, but off the court you love them, not really like hate. But you want to win. Sometimes when we’re on the court, we say things we don’t mean because we have that mentality. When it’s all said and done, we still look at each other with respect and the same.”