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

If, years from now, Coco Gauff fulfills the fate some have predicted for her, perhaps her win over Naomi Osaka, 6-4, 6-4, on Thursday night will serve as the moment of passing the torch.

Or maybe it will just be Chapter 4 in a rivalry that will stretch for decades. Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova played 80 games in the 1970s and 1980s, 60 times in the finals. That’s what many Gauff and Osaka tennis fans are hoping for, especially after Gauff’s nervous win in San Jose, California, at the Silicon Valley Classic, one of several tune-up tournaments for the US Open.

Gauff, who’s still only 18, although looks like she’s been at it for a while – because, well, she was – pushed to the front and hitting her powerful serve, especially when she played the last game of the first sentence sealed . She looked like she was driving 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 who is coming back from an Achilles tendon injury she suffered in the spring, burst into life. She saved four match points in that game and then three more in the next two as she closed the deficit to 5-4 before Gauff eventually put the match away.

“You know certain players, no matter what the result is, it will be tough,” said Gauff afterwards. “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 game that people had long labeled her as “mentally weak.”

“I’ve forgotten who I am,” said 24-year-old Osaka, who took several months off last year to address their mental health. “I feel like the pressure isn’t beating me. I am the pressure.”

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

Gauff vs. Osaka was a round of 16 game. Gauff, ranked 11th, lost Friday night’s quarterfinals 7-6 (4), 6-2 to fourth-placed Paula Badosa of Spain, the winner of last year’s BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California enjoyed.

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

Because Gauff is so young, she sees each game as both a unique sporting event and part of a larger process. She reached her first Grand Slam singles final at the French Open in June She lost to world No. 1, Iga Swiatek from Poland. She fell in the third round at Wimbledon in a tough fight against Amanda Anisimova, another young rising American.

Gauff said on Thursday evening that she had learned from the defeat against Anisimova that she had to remain aggressive against a strong baseline player and not take on the role of counterpuncher. She’s spent the last three weeks training up to eight hours a day in Florida in preparation for the summer hard-court swing in North America. She said she felt the work was paying off against Osaka, one of the greatest baseline players in the game.

“I won the rallies more than they did,” she said of Osaka. “There is still a lot to do 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 cares about more than just winning and losing. Both Gauff and Osaka regularly speak out on social issues, including human rights, gun violence and abortion rights. As they entered the pitch, the players saw a fan holding a sign with pictures of the two of them and the words “Thank you for being you.”

“Such messages are very important to us,” said Gauff. “It shows that people support us not only because of our career, but also because of what we do off the pitch.”

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

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