Coco Gauff, Facing Osaka Again, Plans to Be ‘More Aggressive’

Coco Gauff, Facing Osaka Again, Plans to Be ‘More Aggressive’

MELBOURNE, Australia — Though this is Coco Gauff’s first Australian Open, it must seem very familiar.

In the first round, she faced Venus Williams, the same venerable champion she played in the first round at Wimbledon last year.

In the third round, she will face Naomi Osaka, the same new-age champion she played in the third round at last year’s United States Open.

Gauff, an incandescent 15-year-old from Delray Beach, Fla., hopes experience will help her handle the moment better on Friday than she did in New York, where Osaka defeated her 6-3, 6-0 in Arthur Ashe Stadium.

“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.”

The rematch is likely to be in the Australian Open’s main stadium, Rod Laver Arena, where Gauff has yet to play an official match but has shared the court with Osaka. Both took part last week in the Rally for Relief there, a benefit event to raise money for victims of the bushfires that have ravaged Australia in recent weeks.

That Gauff was invited to take part alongside the game’s leading figures — Serena Williams, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Osaka — is a sign of how quickly her star has risen.

But amid the hoopla and the justifiable excitement, it is important to remember that Gauff is the youngest player in the women’s singles draw and that her tennis remains a work in progress.

Consistency is an issue, as is decision-making under duress.

In New York, Osaka, then ranked No. 1, handled her with relative ease: dominating the baseline rallies and shortening the points with her powerful serve.

Gauff’s groundstrokes repeatedly broke down as Osaka applied intense pressure, focusing her attacks on Gauff’s less dependable forehand wing. She broke Gauff’s serve six times, punishing her second serve. That return pressure was part of the reason Gauff double-faulted seven times.

Osaka was as sensitive in the aftermath as she had been merciless during their brief match, encouraging Gauff to stay on court with her for the post-match television interview as a way of helping to process her disappointment.

Both ended up in tears as they spoke with the ESPN commentator Mary Joe Fernandez, but Gauff and Osaka walked away feeling positive about the experience.

“Yeah, it was definitely a good moment I think for both of us, especially me,” Gauff said. “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.”

Women’s tennis has much to recommend it at the moment, with Serena Williams still going strong at age 38 and a new generation of stars like Osaka emerging. But what it also needs are appointment-viewing rivalries like those that have driven the popularity of the men’s game in the age of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.

Osaka vs. Gauff certainly has long-range potential, even if there is a seven-year gap in age between them. But for now, Osaka, 22, the defending Australian Open champion, is the much more accomplished and consistently powerful player.

She lost in the fourth round at last year’s U.S. Open, where she was beaten by Belinda Bencic, the smooth Swiss counterpuncher. Osaka is now at No. 4 in the rankings but has been resurgent of late and has added one of the game’s most respected coaches in Wim Fissette, a Belgian who does not routinely work long with his pupils but often makes a big impact.

His list of former employers includes Kim Clijsters, Simona Halep and Angelique Kerber. Fissette helped Clijsters win three major singles titles and helped Kerber win Wimbledon in 2018. He also has had two stints working with former No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, the most recent of which ended last season before he was hired by Osaka.

“Me and Wim have a full understanding and a great relationship,” Azarenka, who is not playing in the Australian Open, said in a message last month. “So there are no surprises or drama.”

Gauff’s team remains much the same this season, with her father Corey and Frenchman Jean-Christophe Faurel sharing the coaching duties. But she has added a new hitting partner in Axel Michon, a 29-year-old Frenchman who was once ranked as high as 177 on the men’s tour.

“The reason he didn’t go higher was because he doesn’t serve too well, but his baseline game is exceptional,” Faurel said. “Coco loves to play with him, and he’s brought a lot of freshness to the team, and he’s also helping with the coaching. We are taking a real team approach.”

As a 15-year-old, Gauff still must play a restricted schedule, although the WTA Tour is considering making some adjustments to its rules without abolishing restrictions. The focus in the off-season, according to Corey Gauff, was on polishing Coco’s technique and footwork. He said she had grown an inch, to 5-foot-10.

“Her arms are a little longer, so we had to make some adjustments to her contact points,” Corey Gauff said. “She’s still growing, still developing. Everything will get better. Forehand, backhand, everything gets better with a little more maturity, and she gets that grown-woman strength. She doesn’t have that yet.”

A year ago Gauff was ranked No. 684, but after reaching the fourth round at Wimbledon, reaching the third round at the U.S. Open and winning her first tour title (as a lucky loser) in Linz, Austria, she is up to No. 67 and should break into the top 60 after winning matches in Melbourne against Venus Williams and Sorana Cirstea.

Both were genuine struggles, and on an up-and-down day, Gauff had to scrap and improvise on the fly to fight back and defeat Cirstea 4-6, 6-3, 7-5.

She will need to be much more consistent to pose a genuine threat to Osaka, but there can be no doubt at this early stage about Gauff’s competitive spirit.

“She’s just impressive all around, from her personality to the way she plays,” said Serena Williams, who practiced (and danced) with her in a preseason training camp in Florida. “I was nowhere near her level at 15 either on the court or off the court, not even close. I know kids are growing up different nowadays, so I’m not sure. But I was nowhere near as, like, smart and eloquent as she is. It’s nice to see.”

In the unlikely event both she and Gauff win on Friday and continue to advance, they would play in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open.

That, unlike so much else in Melbourne so far, would be an entirely new experience for Gauff.

“I haven’t really thought about that, to be honest,” Gauff said. “I didn’t even know Serena was on my side of the draw. I don’t look at draws. I just know I play Naomi. I’m looking forward to that.”


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