NEW YORK—On Saturday afternoon I saw Naomi Osaka walking out of her midtown hotel and getting into the van that would take her to the US Open for her match with Coco Gauff. Not surprisingly, she was wearing headphones; even less surprisingly, she was being trailed by a woman holding up a smart phone and trying to snap a photo before the star athlete disappeared. From what I could see, the grim-looking Osaka already had her game face firmly on.
My first thought was that this wasn’t necessarily a good thing. The last two women who had faced Gauff and her many fans at the Open, Anastasia Potapova and Timea Babos, had been frantically intense and over-amped for stretches of their matches against her. Was Osaka, who would have to play her in front of 23,000 people in Arthur Ashe Stadium, going to suffer the same fate?
By the time I saw her again, during her pre-match interview in the tunnel leading out to the court, Osaka’s expression had changed. She smiled when she talked to ESPN’s Mary Jo Fernandez, admitted that she had felt “a lot of nerves” at this tournament so far, and said she was happy that her opponent had made it this far. “I really want to win,” Osaka assured Fernandez, but she was also looking forward to this moment for her opponent. During the tournament, she had already made an empathetic connection with Gauff.
“I saw her in the locker room,” Osaka said of the 15-year-old on Thursday. “She wasn’t really talking to anyone. I was like, ‘Oh, looks familiar. I’m just going to talk to her. I know she’s super young, and I know it’s sort of hard to transition’…She’s a really talented girl. I would love for her to come out of her shell a little bit. I just realize that’s probably what people say about me, too.”
First things first, though. When Osaka walked onto the court, she obviously left her empathy behind in the tunnel. There was a match to be won, and a good player to beat.
“I thought, ‘She’s an incredible mover, and I have to get going right off the bat,’” Osaka said later.
Photos by Anita Aguilar
Osaka didn’t waste any time getting going. Between points, she kept her left hand perpetually clenched, and her emotions tightly controlled, the same way she had against Serena Williams in last year’s US Open final. During the points, she battered the ball from one corner to the other, and never gave Gauff time to do anything but try to batter the ball back. Gauff just didn’t have the opportunity to work many of her customary changes of pace into the rallies. She was too busy either chasing down Osaka’s rockets, or watching them fly past her.
Gauff did dig in and get the early break back, but the errors never stopped coming from her serve and forehand. Twenty-four of the 56 points Osaka won came on winners, while Gauff had almost as many double faults (7) as she did winning shots (8). When Gauff went hard, the ball just came back harder, and in a better spot.
Fortunately, Osaka’s 65-minute, 6-3, 6-0 win was overshadowed by what came afterward. When Osaka saw Fernandez walking out for the post-match interview, she stopped being a competitor and went back to being an empathetic older colleague. She asked Gauff to stay and talk to Fernandez with her. It’s better than going back to the locker room and crying alone, she told the teen, surely from experience. Gauff cried on court, but talked her way through it, and Osaka praised her and her parents.
“I wanted her to have her head high, not walk off the court sad,” Osaka said. “I want her to, like, be aware that she’s accomplished so much and she’s still so young.”
The lesson wasn’t lost on Gauff.
“After the match, I think she just proved she’s a true athlete,” Gauff said. “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. I think that’s what she did tonight.”
What Osaka also did was remind the tennis world that she’s a once and future champion, as well as a new and welcome kind of champion. During the match, she played with a quiet but unflagging intensity, and hit the ball with jaw-dropping power. I think she was able to play so well and stay so calm in part because she embraced her opponent’s Cinderella story, rather than fighting it, the way Gauff’s previous opponents had. She saw the bigger picture, and her part in it.
After the match, Osaka proved that there can be more to tennis and sports than trying to pound your opponent into submission. We saw a similar gesture from Sloane Stephens to Madison Keys after the 2017 final. In both cases, the winners showed that you can compete with someone and help someone, and do both on the field of play.
Sometimes, when the two weeks of a Grand Slam nears its end, and I’m woozy from all the ultra-intense matches I’ve watched and the balls I’ve seen pulverized, I wonder: Do you really have to fight all the time? Tonight Osaka said no, we don’t. She started the day with her game face on, and ended it with tears in her eyes. If she and Gauff are the future, the future might be better than we think.
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