NEW YORK (THE GUARDIAN) - On an emotional Saturday (Aug 31) night at Arthur Ashe Stadium, Naomi Osaka showed that she is not going to relinquish her US Open tennis title easily.
The world No. 1 outclassed American teenage sensation Coco Gauff 6-3, 6-0 to reach the fourth round in just 65 minutes.
"I was just happy throughout this entire match. I think I kept a very high level of focus," she said afterwards. "I honestly think it's been since the Australian Open final that I was that focused and I was fighting that hard for every point."
Across the grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Centre on Saturday afternoon, even as Rafael Nadal competed and US men's No. 1 John Isner fell, anticipation of the duel between Gauff and Osaka dominated conversation.
Last year, Osaka defeated Serena Williams in the final to rise as a new superstar of the sport. At Wimbledon this year, Gauff became one of the most talked-about athletes in the world after her delirious run to the fourth round. It was always going to be a moment, as the two new stars faced each other on the biggest stage.
"I'm just curious to see how my game matches up against her," said Gauff, simply, before the match. She was not the only one. The teenager outplayed Venus Williams in the first round of Wimbledon, and then she survived two three-set slugfests to reach the third round at the US Open, but she had never faced the world No. 1.
The biggest question of the match was Gauff's long, loopy forehand that has a tendency to land short under pressure. Osaka immediately searched for answers, targeting the American's weaker wing with her serve and in the bruising early exchanges.
By the first two games, Osaka had five winners to Gauff's zero. As Gauff's forehand immediately looked vulnerable, the two-time Grand Slam champion hit cleanly and moved ahead 3-0. The 15-year-old settled eventually, slamming down a 191.6kmh ace to hold for 1-3 and punctuating the mini-victory with a loud "c'mon" to the delight of the crowd.
Many of the opening exchanges were electric as Osaka's vicious power met Gauff's lightning defence, but as the first set wore on, the occasion seemed to impact both. Despite boasting two of the biggest serves in the game, both Osaka and Gauff struggled with their deliveries and exchanged five successive breaks.
From 5-3 and 0-30 down, Osaka eventually found her range to take the first set. Gauff tried to attack in the second, but her risks yielded errors and the occasion seemed to dawn on her.
Across the net, Osaka cut out her mistakes and served supremely. The match fell away quickly, but even at 6-3 4-0, the Japanese was still pumping her fist as she scuppered Gauff's game points.
The intensity and verve that Osaka played with as she slammed the door shut seemed to answer all questions about whether Gauff would be able to hang with the best.
After a warm handshake and a hug, the 21-year-old walked over to the 15-year-old and asked if they could do the on-court interview together.
Gauff initially refused as tears welled in her eyes, but Osaka insisted and her beaten opponent agreed. After trading forehands and fist-pumps across the net all evening, they walked over to the same side of the court together.
"I saw that she was kind of tearing up a little," said Osaka. "Then it reminded me how young she was. I was just thinking, like, it would be nice for her to address the people that came and watched her play. They were cheering for her. Yeah, I mean, for me, it was just something that was, I don't know, instinctive I guess."
There are distinct similarities between the rise of Osaka and Gauff, both on and off the court. Earlier in the tournament, Osaka stared across the locker room and saw herself as the 15-year-old quietly watching YouTube with her headphones blocking out the world.
They both spent their early years honing their careers in the academies of Florida. Gauff would notice Osaka occasionally, when she would drive away and see Osaka on the way out.
But Osaka was always watching. "I literally was training at the same place as her." she said. "Like, we would never hit together, but it was always just us putting in the most amount of hours. She was always with her dad just practising."
For Gauff, the match was a learning experience, but the moment the world No. 1 took her under her wing was one to cherish.
"I think she really showed sportsmanship tonight," said Gauff. "I mean, I wasn't expecting it. I'm glad that I was able to experience that moment. I'm glad the crowd was kind of helping me and her. She was crying, she won. I was crying. Everybody was crying."