On the day Coco Gauff beat Venus Williams at the U.S. Open last year, you could sense a seismic shift in women’s tennis.
Sports fans always enjoy a feel-good story and what could have possibly been better than a teenager beating one of the most prominent players in the world?
Yep, there was someone new and refreshing to root for, a young, successful American player – a rare commodity these days – beginning to assert herself in high-pressure situations.
So it was with a great deal of anticipation we welcomed the start of the Australian Open, the first grand slam of the season. What might Gauff be able to accomplish this season?
Well, she has not disappointed. On Friday, Gauff became the youngest player in the professional era to knock out the reigning women’s champion at the Australian Open. This time she beat Naomi Osaka, 6-3, 6-4 in the third round. And it took only 67 minutes.
“I don’t even know,” she said when asked how she won. “From the crowd, I guess. Honestly, I was just telling myself, ‘One point at a time and keep fighting because you never know what happens on this court.’
“I love it down here, oh my gosh, like, honestly, thank you guys from the bottom of my heart, like, oh my gosh, I’m on the Rod Laver Arena – I can’t believe this.”
The win certainly seemed symbolic, a passing of the torch, after watching Serena Williams lose earlier in the day to 27th seed Wang Qiang and Caroline Wozniacki close out her professional career with a loss.
“I’m way too old to play like this at this stage of my career,” Williams said. “Definitely going to be training tomorrow, that’s first and foremost — to make sure I don’t do this again.”
There’s no reason to believe a path hasn’t been opened for a new champion. And why shouldn’t it be a precocious 15-year-old with a booming serve and all the promise in the world.
“Honestly, like, what is my life? Like, oh, my gosh!” Gauff told the crowd after the match. “Two years ago, I lost first round in juniors, and now I’m here. This is crazy.”
Gauff becomes the youngest player ever to defeat someone ranked in the top five in tour-level event since Jennifer Capriati was 15 in 1991.
Amazingly, Gauff had Osaka rattled. She committed 30 unforced errors while Gauff had only 17. Keep in mind that Osaka is only 22 but has already won the 2018 U.S. Open and the 2019 Australian Open.
“You don’t want to lose to a 15-year-old, you know?” Osaka said. “Her serve is way better. I feel like I wasn’t really swinging freely, and she was.
“What could I have done differently? Put the ball in the court.”
Last September, at the U.S. Open, Osaka won in two quick sets (6-3, 6-0) and then embraced her, aware of how the crowd at the event was pulling for Gauff to win.
“Yeah, it was definitely a good moment I think for both of us, especially me,” Gauff told The New York Times. “But I think more just for the people watching, the little girls watching and little boys who can kind of see what sportsmanship is really.
“I think that’s something, if I had a child or something, that’s something I would want my child to see. It just shows what being a competitor really is. You might hate the person on the court, but off the court you love them.”
Before Friday’s match, Gauff had promised her approach would be much different.
“I think I’ll be less nervous this time,” Gauff said. “I think U.S. Open, I was nervous. It was my first time on Ashe. We’re both familiar with each other’s games. She plays really aggressive. This time coming in I’m going to be more aggressive.”
According to ESPN, Gauff did not get through the match without some problems. Leading by a set and a break, and serving at 40-15, she double-faulted twice for the first time as a professional.
Still, she is the first American in 30 years to get to the third round in her first three majors. She placed 15 of her first 16 serves in play.
“That made the difference,” Gauff said.
Gauff next plays No. 14 seed, 21-year-old American Sofia Kenin. Gauff is already 8-2 in grand slam play. Three of her wins have come against opponents with multiple major titles.