MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – Playing nothing like what her age or her ranking would suggest, Coco Gauff steadily made her way to her latest Grand Slam upset, eliminating defending champion Naomi Osaka in the Australian Open’s third round 6-3, 6-4 on Friday.
The 15-year-old American became the youngest player to beat a top-five opponent in a women’s tour-level match since Jennifer Capriati did it at 15 in 1991.
Gauff pulled this off with some big serving, consistent groundstrokes and by letting Osaka largely be her own undoing.
Osaka made 30 unforced errors, Gauff merely 17. This was a rematch of a third-round match at the U.S. Open last September, which Osaka won in straight sets.
But Gauff’s game is growing so quickly.
Osaka, for her part, made her own rapid ascent to the top of tennis, claiming the trophies at the U.S. Open in 2018 and Australian Open in 2019 to rise to No. 1 in the WTA rankings. She is only 22 herself.
Seems old by comparison, of course.
“Oh my gosh. Two years ago I lost the first round in the juniors and now I’m here — this is crazy,” said Gauff.
“I was just telling myself one point at a time and just keep fighting because you never know what happens on this court.”
Osaka said she had been overwhelmed by the pressure of defending her title and admitted she does not have a “champion mentality” after the match.
Osaka said that she “loved” Gauff, but added: “You don’t want to lose to a 15-year-old.”
There was intense interest in the build-up to their second ever match, which was touted as a glimpse into the future of women’s tennis.
Gauff, the youngest player in the Melbourne draw — got emphatic revenge.
“I don’t really have the champion mentality yet, which is someone that can deal with not playing 100 percent (but still win),” said Osaka.
“And I have always wanted to be like that, but I guess I still have a long way to go.
“It’s just something that I think some people are born with and some people have to have really hard, trials and stuff, to get it.”
Osaka, who has spoken openly about her struggles with nerves, told reporters she had not dealt well with the “hype” leading into the match or the expectations placed on her as defending champion.
“I feel like I get tested a lot. Like life is just full of tests and, unfortunately for me, my tests are tennis matches and you guys see them,” she said.
“So I just have to find a way to navigate through it.
“I feel like there are moments where I can handle them and you guys see that.
“Then there are moments like this where I get overwhelmed and I don’t really know what to do in the situation.”
Osaka said that she was particularly disappointed by her failure to win in front of her watching parents.
“But I guess that’s for me a reality check,” she stated.
“It doesn’t really matter the age of the opponent.”
There were the occasional signs that Gauff is not a fully formed player — or person — just yet. For example, leading by a set and a break, serving at 1-0, 40-15, Gauff double-faulted twice in one game to get broken for the first time. It was a rare lapse, though — and one to be expected at this stage of her life and career.
One reminder of just how young Gauff is: Most of the entrants in the junior Australian Open are older than she is.
And another: She doesn’t have an official driver’s license quite yet, still practicing behind the wheel with a learner’s permit.
Still, she plays far beyond her years. Her composure, on and off the court, is remarkable.
That all helped Gauff become the first American in 30 years to reach at least the third round in each of her first three major appearances.
Earlier Friday, 27th-seeded Wang Qiang shocked No. 8 seed Serena Williams in the third round, wining 6-4, 6-7 (2-7), 7-5.
For the 38-year-old American, it was her earliest exit at Melbourne Park in 14 years.
Williams was broken in the final game after more than 2½ hours, fittingly ending things with a backhand into the net. That was her 27th unforced error on the backhand side, part of a total of 56 miscues. Wang made only 20.
Defending men’s champion Novak Djokovic thumped Yoshihito Nishioka 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 in the third round to stay on course for a record-extending eighth title at Melbourne Park.
The world No 2 Serb, who defeated Tatsuma Ito in his previous round, smashed 17 aces, won 93 percent points on his first serve and faced just a single breakpoint against Nishioka.