October 3, 2022

Perhaps, in a few years in the future, if Coco Gauff continues to fulfill the fate some have predicted for her, her victory over Naomi Osaka, 6-4, 6-4, Thursday night will be a moment to pass the torch.

Or perhaps it will just be the fourth chapter in a competition that will span decades. Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova played 80 games during the 1970s and 1980s, 60 times in the Finals. Lots of tennis fans are hoping to get something like this out of Gauff and Osaka, especially after Gauff’s tense win in San Jose, California, in the classic Silicon Valley swap, one of several for the US Open.

Gough, who’s still only 18 though looks like she’s been around for a while now – because, well, she rose to prominence, pounding her powerful serve, especially as she wrapped up in the first-set final. She looked like she was going to sail toward victory, a 5-1 lead in the second set. Osaka was serving at 0-40.

But then Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam winner who came back from an Achilles tendon injury she suffered in the spring, came back alive. She saved four match points in that match and then three more over the next two as she finished the difference to 5-4 before Gauff finally put the match away.

“You know certain players, no matter the result, it’s going to be tough,” Gauff said in a post-match press conference. “It’s Naomi. She could easily have thrown in the towel, but she didn’t.”

After the match ended, Osaka said she realized during the match that she had long let people call her “mentally weak.”

“I forgot who I was,” said Osaka, who is 24 and took several months off last year while struggling with her mental health. “I feel the pressure is not hitting me. I am the pressure.”

There are plenty of professional tennis tournaments during the year that can be conspicuously skipped for a number of reasons – low bets, a lack of star power, and a lack of money at stake. But this year’s Silicon Valley Classic far outweighed its weight. A stacked draw—young women could choose to play this week in steamy Washington, D.C. or balmy Northern California—has made matches worthy of subsequent rounds of Grand Slam tournaments right from the start.

Gauff’s match against Osaka was in the round of 16. Gauff, seeded 11th, will play in the quarterfinals Friday night against fourth seed Paula Padusa of Spain, winner of last year’s BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif. It’s a match that Gauff enjoys for a number of reasons.

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

Because Gauff is still so young, every match for her is a unique sporting event and part of a larger operation. She reached her first Grand Slam singles final at the French Open in June, losing to world number one, Ija Swiatek of Poland. She fell in the third round at Wimbledon in a tough fight against Amanda Anisimova, another young American rising.

Gauff said Thursday night that she has learned from Anisimova’s loss that even in the face of a strong starting player, she needs to remain aggressive and not take on the counterattack. She’s spent the past three weeks training eight hours a day in Florida to prepare for the North American summer hard-court swing. She said she felt the work was paying off against Osaka, one of football’s greatest players.

“I was winning rallies more than I was,” she said of Osaka. “There is a lot to go before the US Open, but this is a good start for me.”

Meanwhile, there were several moments Thursday night when Gauff said she received a healthy reminder that she’s more than just wins and losses. Both Gough and Osaka speak regularly on social issues, including human rights, gun violence and abortion rights. As they walked into the stadium, the players saw a fan holding a banner showing pictures of the two of them and the words “Thank you for being you.”

“These kinds of messages are really important to us,” Goff said. “It shows that people support us not only because of our career but because of what we do off the pitch as well.”

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

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