US Open 2019: Gauff can handle occasion of Osaka showdown

Coco Gauff is the story of the first week of a grand slam once again as she prepares to face Naomi Osaka at Flushing Meadows.

Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff will face off in the third round of the US Open   -  Getty Images

When Naomi Osaka takes on teenage sensation Coco Gauff in the tie of the third round at the US Open on Saturday, it will be impossible not to see the parallels between the two.

Following her victory in a brutal battle with Timea Babos on Thursday, John McEnroe was quick to warn how a Gauff triumph in the match everyone hoped to see may be too much, too soon for the 15-year-old sensation.

The rise of Osaka, and her subsequent struggles to deal with the spotlight that has arrived with becoming the world number one and winning two grand slams by the age of 21, may well be a reason why McEnroe made that claim.

Osaka has rarely looked comfortable in the media glare and, prior to the final major of the year at Flushing Meadows, conceded she has not had fun playing tennis since her success at the Australian Open.

The Japanese can see herself in Gauff, who is again the story of the first week of a grand slam having become the youngest woman to reach the third round of the US Open since 1996.

 

However, speaking after her routine win over Magda Linette on Thursday, Osaka pointed out a key difference between her and Gauff.

"Yeah, I mean, off the court she seems like me. Well, she seems a little bit more, like, she knows what she's doing," Osaka said. "I just mean, like, I'm very quiet. I've gotten actually a bit talkative recently, though.

"But, yeah, I saw her in the locker room. She wasn't really talking to anyone. I was like, 'Oh, looks familiar'. I'm just going to talk to her. I know she's super young, and I know it's sort of hard to transition.

"I wasn't even a junior, but I can only imagine as a junior you play these tournaments with your friends, and then you come to the pros and you don't know anyone.

"She's a really talented girl. I would love for her to come out of her shell a little bit. I just realise that's probably what people say about me, too."

Blazing a trail

Though based on her post-match demeanour, Osaka may be doing herself a disservice.

A comfortable win understandably changes the tone of a media conference for the better, but Osaka's light-hearted approach to proceedings - in which she cracked jokes about helping famous fans Kobe Bryant and Colin Kaepernick stay out of the sun - made for a striking contrast to how she has often dealt with the media.

 

Still, Osaka's praise of Gauff's composure is well-founded. On and off the court, the teenager never seems fazed by anything thrown in her direction, though she partially credits Osaka for giving her the belief she can beat the best on the biggest stage.

Asked what she can take from how Osaka has navigated early success, Gauff told a media conference: "I think she just made it, I guess, possible. 

"Last year, at the US Open, she wasn't really like a big contender. Obviously now this year she is. She had that amazing run, then the final. Honestly, I think she's a big inspiration for everyone. She's 21. She has two slams. She's still thriving for more.

"I think she's just a super-sweet person on and off the court. She competes great out there. I think she shows us how to compete and the way to, like, be off the court, too."

Right temperament

Competing with Osaka on the court will be the biggest challenge Gauff has faced so far. She fought extremely hard in her Wimbledon defeat to Simona Halep and will likely have to improve on that effort if she is to progress further in New York.

In terms of her overall poise, however, Gauff may actually be ahead of a world number one who is still finding her feet in dealing with the rigours that come with being at the top of the sport.

Too much, too soon? It remains to be seen. However, there can be no doubt Gauff has the temperament to handle the occasion in what will be the first of hopefully many enticing contests between two players set to dominate women's tennis.