FLUSHING MEADOWS, Queens — When 15-year-old tennis prodigy Cori “Coco” Gauff emerged onto center stage (actually, center court) at Arthur Ashe Stadium Saturday night, the crowd roared for the American teen who had already excelled in the first two rounds at the U.S. Open, as a wild card entry in her first American major.
But on this particular night—the third round in the tournament— she was facing the world number one in women’s tennis, the defending U.S. Open champ, Naomi Osaka.
And despite Gauff’s best efforts to foil Osaka with some well-timed slices that drew some errors from the Japanese star, the match was over in 65 minutes, due in part to punishing, winning shots from Osaka—leaving the teen sensation wiping away tears, as her parents watched from Gauff’s box.
The score was 6-3; 6-0 for Osaka.
Osaka, 21, had cried on the same court last September on what should have been her greatest night, as the 2018 crowd booed umpire Carlos Ramos for penalizing opponent Serena Williams.
This year, Osaka moved toward Coco and stroked her arm repeatedly, giving her a hug.
Osaka then asked the teen to do a joint, on-court interview with her for ESPN. Coco resisted, afraid she would cry through the whole thing. Osaka could be heard saying it would be “better than crying in the shower later.”
So Coco Gauff spoke to the interviewer and the live audience, observing, “I’m going to learn a lot from this match.”
“She’s been so sweet to me,” Gauff said of Osaka, “so thank you for this.”
As Coco Gauff finished, she added, “Thank you, Naomi. I don’t want people to think that I’m trying to take this moment away from you, because she really deserves it.”
But Osaka, perhaps remembering the emotion of nearly a year ago, was crying herself, and turned toward Gauff’s box to praise her family for the daughter and athlete they guided.
“You guys raised an amazing player,” Osaka said through tears. “I remember I used to see you guys training in the same place as us. For me, like the fact that both of us made it, and we’re both still working as hard as we can, I think it’s incredible. I think you guys are amazing, I think, Coco, you’re amazing.”
The moments on the court were so moving that fellow players like Sloane Stephens retweeted the footage, with Stephens writing, “This support is what tennis should be about.” She added two “applause” emojis as an exclamation point and wrote “Well done.”
Later, both players talked about the match—and the emotional aftermath—at separate press conferences.
“She was crying, I was crying,” Coco Gauff recounted, adding with a laugh, “I didn’t know why she was crying, you won the match!”
Gauff noted, “She had way more winners than I did…She proved she’s a true athlete.”
When Gauff was asked what she was most proud of in the tournament, she responded, “Probably the way I’ve been handling it all. A lot of people forget I’m new to this and still learning.”
Later, Osaka observed, “The amount of media on her now is insane.”
When a reporter asked why she had hugged Gauff and suggested the joint interview, Osaka replied, “It was kind of instinctive. When I shook her hand, I saw she was tearing up a bit. Then I thought how young she was.”
Osaka said she felt it was important to help Gauff through the difficult moment.
“I wanted her to have her head high…to be aware that she’s accomplished so much.”
Both Osaka and Gauff’s names are frequently mentioned in statements about the future of women’s tennis.
When asked about Gauff’s strengths, Osaka responded, “Her movement is one of the biggest things on her game.”
At times, it seemed the Arthur Ashe crowd was rooting more for the young American, perhaps because she was struggling in the match. Osaka told reporters she wasn’t aware of any favoritism from the crowd.
“I’m kind of deaf when I play,” Osaka said.
Osaka now moves on to the fourth round of the Open, remarking, “I get better as the tournament goes on. I trust myself more.”
As for Coco Gauff, she will play US Open doubles on Sunday, going into another round with partner Caty McNally.
And the tennis world is predicting big outcomes for Gauff in her future.
“My dad told me I’m 15. I still have a lot to work on, a lot to improve,” Gauff said.
The tears at the end of her first match at Arthur Ashe are now part of her history.
“I guess it shows I’m human,” Coco said.