U.S. Open: Coco Gauff and Naomi Osaka brought to tears

Coco Gauff wipes away tears while talking to Naomi Osaka, of Japan, after Osaka defeated Gauff during the third round of the U.S. Open tennis tournament Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)
Coco Gauff wipes away tears while talking to Naomi Osaka, of Japan, after Osaka defeated Gauff during the third round of the U.S. Open tennis tournament Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

NEW YORK – There’s no crying in baseball, but they play that across the street at Citi Field.

At the National Tennis Center, there was plenty of crying Saturday night.

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“I was crying. She was crying. Everybody was crying,’’ Coco Gauff said. “She was crying and she won. I was like, ‘You won the match.’ ”

The only ones not crying at Arthur Ashe Stadium, it seemed, were the 24,000 or so fans who came to cheer Gauff on to what they hoped would be a victory over world No. 1 Naomi Osaka, the defending U.S. Open champion and the highest-rated player the 15-year-old Gauff had ever faced.

They wound up seeing a match for the Kleenex Cup.

But even though the crowd did not get what it came to see – Osaka handled Gauff convincingly and by the end, overwhelmingly, 6-3, 6-0 – there were plenty of dry eyes, and dry throats in the stands.

The crowd cheered Gauff for what it seems sure she will become, and it cheered Osaka for what she already is.

And considering their youth – Osaka will turn 22 on October 16 – Saturday night’s match could be the first of a long and memorable rivalry.

At some point, the names Coco and Naomi might take their place with the other great and inseparable pairings in the history of women’s tennis, alongside Chrissie and Martina, Monica and Steffi and Venus and Serena.

“Because we’re so young, I feel of course we’re going to play multiple times in the future,” Osaka said. “I’m not necessarily looking forward to that. But it will be fun for you guys to watch.’’

Right now, the two are not at the same playing level, but certainly they are one another’s equal in class.

At the conclusion of this relatively brief match – it took all of 66 minutes from first serve to Gauff’s final forehand that sailed way long – it was the victor, Osaka, who convinced the vanquished Gauff to remain on the court and soak up the affection of the crowd.

“I can’t. I’m going to cry,’’ Gauff told her.

“It’s better than crying in the shower,” Osaka responded.

Under persistent coaxing, Gauff relented, and the two shared a tearful mid-court embrace as the crowd, which had tried in vain to rally Gauff throughout the match, roared one more time with the kind of ovation normally reserved for champions.

“I just thought about what I wanted her to feel leaving the court,’’ Osaka said. “I wanted her to leave with her head high, not feeling sad.’’

It was a far cry from the way Osaka left the court at Ashe last year, under a shower of boos aimed at an umpire who had gotten into an on-court fracas with Serena Williams, who Osaka had just beaten to win her first Slam. The outburst overshadowed Osaka’s victory and robbed her of the adulation she had earned in the match.

“I didn’t want to take this moment away from her,” Gauff said. “I definitely wanted to leave the court because I’m not the kind of person who wants to cry in front of everyone.”

The waterworks nearly started even before the match began, when Osaka said she was moved by the sight of Gauff hugging her father, Corey, who is also her trainer.

“It was like she was hugging her dad goodbye,’’ Osaka said. “I was like, ‘Oh God, don’t do this to me before the match.’ I had to put my game face on.”

Once the match began, it was obvious that Gauff, who had beaten Russia’s Anastasia Potapova, a fellow teenager, in the first round and Timea Babos of Hungary, a 26-year-old veteran ranked 112th, in the second, had taken a major step up in class against Osaka.

Osaka ran off to a 3-0 lead in the first set by extending rallies far beyond their expected lifespan, forcing Gauff into numerous unforced errors.

“It was hard for me to take control of the points,” Gauff said. “It was hard for me to control the rallies. She had way more winners than I did. I think she trusts her strokes a lot more and I think I have to work on that.”

Showing the tenacity she had displayed in her first two matches, Gauff won three of the next four games, breaking Osaka twice, to close to 4-3. But Osaka won the next eight games, Gauff’s game unraveling as the match wore on.

By the end, Osaka had broken Gauff six times, served five aces, and hit 24 winners to Gauff’s 16. She also induced 24 unforced errors.

“She was really attacking the ball well,” Gauff said. “I think I’m going to learn a lot from this match.”

Gauff entered the arena to an adoring crowd intrigued by her youth, enchanted by her poise under pressure and hopeful that they were witnessing the gestation of the next big thing in women’s tennis. Her second-round match against Babos drew Kobe Bryant and Colin Kaepernick to Louis Armstrong Stadium; among the crowd at Ashe on Saturday was tennis great Rod Laver as well as CC Sabathia, Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Hicks of the New York Yankees.

It was Coco’s house from first serve to last point, but unlike her previous two matches, Osaka had not come to Ashe to play second banana to a star. Rather, she indoctrinated a precocious teenager into a rough-and-tumble world that must have seemed alien to her.

“She just proved to me that she’s a true athlete,” Gauff said. “To me, that means someone who on the court treats you like their worst enemy but off the court can be your best friend. I think that’s what she did tonight.”

Said Osaka: “I don't really know her very well, but she seems like a sweetheart.’’

All things considered, this could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

And, an unforgettable rivalry.

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