In a rematch of their US Open clash, defending champion Naomi Osaka takes on 15-year-old phenomenon Coco Gauff in the third round of the Australian Open.
Osaka vs Gauff is live from Melbourne on Friday 24 January at 7pm local/8am GMT
The clash between Osaka and Gauff at the US Open in August was much-anticipated, with Osaka the defending champion a year after announcing herself as a major new star by dethroning Serena Williams in the final and 15-year-old Gauff having become a global media sensation after qualifying for the main draw at Wimbledon, beating Venus Williams at it and reaching the last 16 before losing to Simona Halep.
The actual match did not deliver the fireworks which were hoped for, with Osaka winning 6-3, 6-0 as she delivered a confident, aggressive and accurate performance, and Gauff struggling with her nerves on the Arthur Ashe Stadium. But the aftermath quickly went viral as Osaka invited Gauff, someone with whom she had shared practice courts as an unknown, to share her post-match interview and consoled the crying teenager in a display of sportsmanship.
There’s sure to be as much respect when they take to Rod Laver Arena on Friday – but hopefully the actual tennis might be a little more competitive.
Osaka, once again, will be there in her capacity as defending champion, although not as the top seed this time. Seeded third at the Australian Open, Osaka warmed up with a semifinal run at the Brisbane International, battling through three-set duels against Maria Sakkari, Sofia Kenin and Kiki Bertens before losing to Karolina Pliskova. So far in Melbourne however Osaka has avoided being dragged to three sets, although it has been a close-run thing: Both Marie Bouzkova in the first round and Zheng Saisai in the second led the second set 4-2 before Osaka came back to win those matches by identical scorelines, 6-2, 6-4.
Osaka might not be able to get away with allowing her level to drop after the second set and thus giving her opponent an opportunity to get into the match when she faces Gauff, who has a more formidable game than either Bouzkova or Zheng, despite the latter currently playing some of the best tennis of her career and winning the Premier-level Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic last August.
But Osaka has generally made a more confident start to her second title defense at a Grand Slam than she did at the US Open.
‘I think I got that all out after my experience at the US Open. I just think of it as a new tournament. The only thing that may have changed is that people might want to beat me more. I didn’t deal with that well after this tournament last year, I’ll tell you.
‘Now I think of it as a nice challenge. Someone wanting to play their best against me is something I have to feel fortunate about, because it’s how I get better.’
Osaka is not the only one who has more experience and is approaching things more confidently. After Osaka stopped her US Open run, Gauff – who is limited in how many events she can play because of her age – only played two more tournaments in 2019, but managed to put together another sensational run at one of them, winning the maiden title of her career at the Upper Austria Ladies Linz with wins over Kiki Bertens, Andrea Petkovic and Jelena Ostapenko.
Currently ranked world no. 67, just one place off a career high hit in January, Gauff started her season by playing the ASB Classic in Auckland where she beat Viktoria Kuzmova before losing in three sets to the crafty Laura Siegemund. Facing Venus Williams in the first round as another déjà vu, Gauff won again 7-6(5), 6-3 before coming back from a set down against Sorana Cirstea to win 4-6, 6-3, 7- and set up the clash with Osaka – a clash in which she has vowed to be more aggressive.
‘I think I’ll be less nervous this time. At the US Open I was nervous. It was my first time on Ashe.
‘For sure I’ll be more confident because I’ve felt her ball before. We’re both familiar with each other’s games. She plays really aggressive. This time coming in I’m going to be more aggressive.’
It will be an interesting clash. Gauff certainly can acquit herself much better than she did at the US Open; she’s got a big serve, plenty of power off the ground and athleticism too, along with a nice line in variety and point construction. Osaka is the more outright power player, but any nerves on her part or any tentativeness will be promptly punished by Gauff. The teenager is very impressive, but Osaka, as the more polished product, should be able to deliver an accurate and confident performance to win, perhaps in two tight sets, and reach the fourth round in Melbourne.