Is there a more electrifying athlete in world sport than 15-year-old Coco Gauff? After a pair of tennis giants had fallen at Melbourne Park on Friday, Gauff topped off a wild night with an almost casual demoliation of defending champion Naomi Osaka. We haven’t smelled teen spirit like this since Jennifer Capriati was wearing braces.
On any other day, the headlines from the Australian Open would have led with the untimely exit of Serena Williams – the runaway favourite – and the retirement of people’s champion Caroline Wozniacki. Surely that was enough to leave the tennis world agog?
But Gauff is already showing the sort of scene-stealing qualities we might associate with Olivia Colman. Her 6-3, 6-4 win over a psyched-out Osaka upstaged even Williams’s latest failure to land a record 24th major, as well as a poignant farewell speech from a tearful Wozniacki.
A peculiar vortex is created when an absurdly young player starts beating up on the tour. A kind of hysteria. Boris Becker alluded to it on Telegraph Sport, when he warned that “We should be careful of over-talking and over-hyping a 15-year-old American who has won a few matches.”
Yet it is hard to ignore a young woman who can serve at 119mph – a figure that a dozen men at this tournament are unable to match – and run like a gazelle. For all the hope and expectation that tennis fans are investing in Gauff, this is no sporting South Sea Bubble.
In a Eurosport briefing on Thursday, Becker had also suggested that “Naomi Osaka is great. [Bianca] Andreescu is great. I think Coco, tennis-wise, isn’t as good as these players yet.”
But it only took a few minutes for that argument to be exposed. From the off, Gauff’s groundstrokes were stronger and more accurate than Osaka’s. Her serve was more ferocious and her movement was twice as proactive.
Osaka had dominated their only previous meeting, in the third round of September’s US Open, to such an extent that she only lost three games. She also created one of the year’s most charming scenes when she consoled a distraught Gauff at the net, and then encouraged her to speak to the crowd via the on-court interview with presenter Mary Joe Fernandez.
After such a heartwarming moment, Gauff’s ferocious display could be seen as a curious kind of gratitude. Yet tennis players are obliged to accept the peculiar dynamic of individual sport, in which they are simultaneously colleagues and rivals. “A real athlete can absolutely hate you on the court,” Gauff said on Friday, “but off the court they're nice. That's what true champions are.”
Osaka’s post-match take was a little different. “Losing to her hurts more than the defending champion thing,” she said, “I think it's because I have an age problem. Like, I don't like losing to people that are younger than me.” This bugbear may explain why – as soon as she realised how much Gauff has improved since August – Osaka began to stress out. She never found her rhythm or her poise.
“Her serve is way better than when I played her last year,” Osaka admitted. “I thought she was hitting very close [above] the net today. I definitely had more pressure, because I am on paper supposed to win this match. I let that haze my vision a little bit.”
Earlier, Williams had also been involved in a US Open rematch that forked off in a very different direction. In September’s quarter-final on Arthur Ashe Stadium, China’s Wang Qiang had put up paper-thin resistance in a 6-1, 6-0 defeat. On Friday, by contrast, the fleet-footed Wang proved harder to break through than a titanium bank-vault.
Once Wang had completed her 6-4, 6-7, 7-5 victory, the most obvious question related to Williams’s future. Everyone wants to know the same thing: how long will she keep chasing Margaret Court’s record of 24 major titles? Yet in her post-match interview, Williams dropped no hints of imminent retirement. Quite the reverse: she spoke about being “on the way up” after her title in Hobart a fortnight ago. To her, the alarming tally of 56 unforced errors during Friday’s match felt like nothing more than a frustrating anomaly.
“I just made far too many errors to be a professional athlete today,” said Williams afterwards. “Like, I literally can't do that again. That's unprofessional. It's not cool. I'm way too old to play like this at this stage of my career. It's such a big tournament. It's no excuse, to be honest. I'm definitely going to be training tomorrow. That's first and foremost, to make sure I don't do this again.”
For as long as she keeps pursuing the elusive Court, Williams is likely to notice Wozniacki’s absence from the locker-room. She was certainly emotional about it on Friday, telling reporters in the interview room that “Guys, I can't answer Caroline questions. I'm going to be crying. She's one of my best friends in the world [and] I'm going to miss her.”
Earlier, Wozniacki had come up with the quote of the night after her own 7-5, 3-6, 7-5 defeat to the talented Tunisian shotmaker Ons Jabeur. "I think it was only fitting that my last match would be a three-setter, a grinder,” she said, with a sardonic twinkle. “And that I would finish my career with a forehand error."
Try as she might, Wozniacki could not stop the tears from flowing during her on-court interview with Chanda Rubin. Her final moments on the court were accompanied by the same sort of send-off video, full of tributes from her peers, that Andy Murray had to watch here last year. There was one crucial difference, however. Wozniacki is genuinely ready to go.
Gauff marches on
...to either Rod Laver, or more likely his social media team.
In response to Gauff's post-match comments she would like to meet the three-time Australian Open winner and legend of the game, he posted:
Hello @CocoGauff - congratulations on your incredible victory tonight. I would love to meet you too. ��— Rod Laver (@rodlaver) January 24, 2020
Onwards for Gauff
Osaka never normally shies away when it comes to analysing her results, good and bad so it will be interesting to see what she makes of this defeat. There were just far too many unforced errors from the 2019 champion, 30 in total to Gauff's 17. She looked to have stopped the rot mid way through the second set but then her backhand went wonky again.
Homework time incoming...
I've probably got tomorrow to do my homework because I want to go to sleep tonight. But my teachers are giving me time, letting me do a few assignments late because of my circumstances.
'Honestly, what is my life?'
Oh my gosh, I don't know where that performance came from. From the crowd I guess.
Honestly, what is my life? Two years ago I lost in the first round of the juniors and now I'm here, this is crazy!
I was just telling myself one point at a time, because you never know what happens on this court.
I love it down here in Australia. Thank you guys from the bottom of my heart. I'm on Rod Laver arena, I can't believe this. I walked past him a couple of times in the corridors, I never really said hi as I was nervous. If he sees this, tell him we can meet up. I need a selfie for Instagram!
Coco Gauff moves into the fourth round of the Australian Open
Osaka not hanging about here, she's straight off. Coco about to speak...
Game, set, match! Osaka 3-6, 4-6 Gauff
Tenth point in a row on serve brings the American closer. There's another as Osaka misses with her forehand. Osaka is on her hunches, as she challenges another call being long. And it is! Three match points Gauff.
Gauff has done it! Osaka dumps into the net. Gauff, 15, in turn, dumps the defending champion out!
Osaka 3-6, 4-5 Gauff* (*denotes next to serve)
She's not going down without a fight. Attack the best from of defence as the defending champion wallops a backhand volley down the line for 30-0. Ah, there's that off-colour backhand coming out to play again. And the forehand's been afflicted too, straight into the net! 30-30. Two crucial points dig her out and makes Gauff serve for a massive victory.
*Osaka 3-6, 3-5 Gauff (*denotes next to serve)
Gauff pumps the fist as Osaka goes long on the return. It's a repeat on the second for 30-0. Osaka gets into the rally on the next but it's again long as the clock reaches an hour. Osaka trying to mix things up at 0-40 and comes into the net but Gauff fires it back in low and Osaka is all at sea, and nets. Osaka serving to stay in the match....
Osaka 3-6, 3-4 Gauff* (*denotes next to serve)
Patchy. That would be the best way to explain Osaka today. After appearing to build up a head of steam on the last two service games, it's like the air has been let out of the tyres. Backhand error after error brings up three break points Gauff. And with it, a rare muttering in the direction of her box. First one saved but there is the creaky backhand again. Gauff breaks and closes within two games of victory!
*Osaka 3-6, 3-3 Gauff (*denotes next to serve)
Unforced error numbers 21 and 22 for Osaka makes it 30-0 before Gauff adds an ace. Another strong serve is unreturnable and it's an easy hold.
Osaka 3-6, 3-2 Gauff* (*denotes next to serve)
Osaka is the master of the poker face. A first double of the fault off her racket is then followed by a superbly constructed point, catching Gauff on the run. No celebration, just a prowl across the baseline and a request for the next set of balls. An ace closes out the game.
*Osaka 3-6, 2-2 Gauff (*denotes next to serve)
A very important game this for Gauff. Her radar is off for the first backhand but not on the second, watching it soar down the line and land right on the back of the line. Osaka then rips a forehand return wide and arrows another into the net for 40-15. Osaka with a forehand winner this time but then Gauff peppers the cross-court, drawing her opponent further and further out and into an error. Important hold.
Osaka 3-6, 2-1 Gauff* (*denotes next to serve)
Give her an inch and she takes a country mile? Osaka rattles off four straight points for a hold to love. No wonder her support team are up on their feet and applauding.
*Osaka 3-6, 1-1 Gauff (*denotes next to serve)
Gauff's first serve percentage here is pushing her forwards. Osaka is unable to read the serve and in quick succession can only return long for 40-15. Oh, I spoke too soon, as Gauff chucks in a double fault. And then Osaka takes the ball early, dragging Gauff out wide and leaving a free court to volley a winner into. She's into the net again with a forehand winner for break point. Gauff digs herself out with a gutsy, big serve. But then another double fault hands Osaka a second break point. Gauff comes into the net but volleys straight into it! First sign of a blink from the teenager. A turning point?
Osaka 3-6, 0-1 Gauff* (*denotes next to serve)
Osaka is off her game here as the unforced errors creep in. She tries not to let it show but that is a wretched old service game there, especially when she misses with what should be an easy volleyed winner. She affords herself a rueful smile but that's break point Gauff. And she takes it, of course she does.
Gauff takes the first set
*Osaka 3-6 Gauff (*denotes next to serve)
She really is a ice queen in these situations, I wish I was this cool at her age....
Serve out wide, Osaka can't return and then the Japanese players down the line misses. Errors aplenty splaying off her racquet right now. Another from the baseline and Gauff has three set points. She needs just one! Her family jump to their feet in celebration. As they should. Superb stuff from Gauff.
Osaka 3-5 Gauff* (*denotes next to serve)
These two trading blow for blow, Gauff holding on a grinding out the game, forcing Osaka to play that extra shot. And the pressure tells as Osaka blows an easy back hand for break point. Osaka misses her first serve and then that's another miss on the backhand. Gauff breaks, and let's out a roar of 'cmon!!!'. She serves for the set.
*Osaka 3-4 Gauff (*denotes next to serve)
You know that feeling you get when your opponent just doesn't go away, no matter what you try? Gauff is standing up to Osaka here, and races into a 40-15 lead on serve. A little wobble with a double fault but an aggressive stroke brings up the game. Back to you Naomi.
Osaka 3-3 Gauff* (*denotes next to serve)
Slight signs of nerves from the Osaka backhand? She stumbles as Gauff gets the first point of the game and then the American follows that up with a net game that belies her experience, lobbing her way back into the point before emphatically smacking the ball home for a 0-30 lead.
Osaka scrambles back thanks to a few Gauff errors and then pulls out a trusty ace out wide for game point. That forehand doesn't do the trick but she does on the next opportunity to hold. But that was a slight sniff of a break for Gauff. This really is superb tennis.
*Osaka 2-3 Gauff (*denotes next to serve)
Oh hang on, whatever Osaka can do, Gauff fires straight back with. This teenager will just not be moved, nerves seemingly not an issue. She serves out wide and Osaka can only dink her backhand into the net. A couple of baseline battles but Gauff wins them.
Osaka 2-2 Gauff* (*denotes next to serve)
An small glimpse into the size of the challenge facing Gauff here today as Osaka returns with a rapid hold to love. Gauff goes long with her backhand and then Osaka drives a volley past her before finishing with an ace.
*Osaka 1-2 Gauff (*denotes next to serve)
Gauff is quickly developing a strong following all over the world given her exploits so far in her young career. That draws a cheer as she blasts a backhand through her opponent's defences. Two sloppy shots see her slip 15-30 down but there's a cross-court winner and a lovely forehand for another game on the board.
Osaka 1-1 Gauff* (*denotes next to serve)
The defending champion is off with her first serve but gets into the rally, drawing Gauff into the net. The American goes long with her volley. Gauff trying to go toe-to-toe with Osaka but the Japanese player has too much power on the ground strokes. Suddenly it is 40-15 and an ace brings up the hold.
*Osaka 0-1 Gauff (*denotes next to serve)
Right, here we go. Gauff gets on the board with her first serve, that will be good for the confidence. But then Osaka batters a forehand back past her. Gauff composes herself and moves out to 40-15 before a winner down the line from Osaka takes us to deuce. Gauff dictates from the baseline though and holds. Steel.
Players out on court and warming up
End of an era
No, not Serena off the back of that defeat - her quest for a 24th Grand Slam singles title stretches on but it's not retirement time yet.
Instead, Caroline Wozniacki's career came to an end following defeat today. The former world number one announced last month that the Australian Open, the scene of her greatest triumph when she broke her grand slam duck in 2018, would also be the stage for her professional farewell at the age of 29.
Wozniacki would have hoped to stretch out the goodbye a little longer but Tunisian Ons Jabeur made her own grand slam breakthrough with a 7-5 3-6 7-5 victory.
There's a lot of emotions, a lot of things I can't compartmentalise now.
A lot of excitement. A little sadness. Flashbacks to since I was a kid to this moment.
As we wait for the players to emerge, there's still time to take a look at a big shock to happen already in the women's draw today - that of Serena Williams suffering a third-round loss to China's Wang Qiang. She described her performance as 'unprofessional' and 'not cool'. Read more on that in Simon Briggs' report from Melbourne here
Call me Coco
Osaka vs Gauff - part II
For the second Grand Slam in a row, Coco Gauff and Naomi Osaka will play each other in the third round. It was Osaka who came out on top at the US Open winning 6-3, 6-0 but it was the way she consoled the teenager at the end which stole the headlines, giving her a big hug and inviting her to stay on court.
Amid all the fanfare since Gauff's breakthrough at Wimbledon last year, it is easy to forget she is still on 15 years old. But her slam record is remarkable for such a young age, reaching at least the third round of the four slams she has entered. She already put out Venus Williams in the first round here in Melbourne, repeating the trick she managed at Wimbledon and will be desperate to take the scalp of Osaka too, especially given she is the defending champion. She had her struggles in the second round, coming from a set down to beat the experienced Sorana Cirstea in just over two hours. But there's some serious nerve in this teenager.
Osaka, meanwhile, regards her opponent with almost big-sister like affection: “It’s amazing what different personalities can bring to the sport. Since she is so young, she has brought so much interest and a new wave. She played doubles in one of the stadiums at the US Open last year and it was full. That is not normal and I don’t think it is something that can be taken for granted.”
And yet, this is a tennis match and Osaka has a job to do here in defence of her title. She will be the overwhelming favourite but is not averse to the occasional meltdown, as shown in her 'childish' outburst in her quick win over Zheng Saisai on day three.
Victory day would also be Osaka's 40th career Grand Slam match win. Lose and Gauff will become the youngest player to beat a top five ranked opponent since Capriati beat Sabatini in the quarter-finals of the 1991 US Open.