Two of the WTA Tour’s brightest stars will meet on Thursday as Coco Gauff and Naomi Osaka face off in the second round of the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic in San Jose.
Former world No. 1 Osaka is looking to get back into top form after missing the grass season due to an Achilles’ injury and splitting from coach Wim Fissette. Gauff, 18, is looking to continue her progress towards the top after making the French Open final two months ago.
It will be the fourth meeting between the pair and is the most anticipated match-up of the North American swing so far.
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'I want to see what she's going to bring'
When wondering whether Osaka is soon/ever going to return to her best form, it’s easy to forget her career path in the years before her shock 2021 French Open withdrawal, after which she has only made one final. Despite winning four Grand Slam titles, Osaka was never a year-round dominant force on the WTA Tour. Her majors were all won in different years and she has only won three other career titles.
High-level consistency has not yet been Osaka’s forte; instead she has managed to produce her highest level at some of the biggest events on tour. It’s difficult to know how far away she is from doing that again.
She only won one match over the clay season and didn’t play at all on grass, but in her last hard-court event at the Miami Open in March she made the final.
She has split with Fissette, who was with her when she won two majors, and is working again with her father, Leonard Francis, who Osaka says adds more of a “fun” factor to the team.
“He always makes me think outside the box,” said Osaka of her father ahead of the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic.
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"Whenever I think something is really bad he always makes me realise that things are much more positive than they seem. When I get stressed out he starts dancing or something to make me feel better.
“It's just nice to have him around and it makes me remember the times when I was a kid.”
World No. 41 Osaka looked in decent touch as she fired 11 aces in her opening-round win over 19-year-old Zheng Qinwen. She has won two of three meetings against Gauff, both on American soil at the 2019 US Open and 2021 Western & Southern Open, and if she serves well again and finds her range with her groundstrokes she will provide a stern test for an opponent who she has backed to soon win a Grand Slam.
"She's been on the tour for a while and I think people don't know that because of how young she is. She's improving every year, so I think there's a lot that she's learning and it's only a matter of time before she wins a Slam.
"The last time we played in Cincy, I was just really tense there...I'm just looking to see what she's improved. When I go on the court, I know who I am, so I just want to see what she's going to bring."
Aged 24, Osaka also spoke about leaning on experience after her win over Zheng. "I think that's one thing that I have above her is that I have a lot of experience. I've definitely played more matches than her, so it's going to be interesting to watch her grow."
Mature Gauff wanting it more
Gauff is a player who has grown this season.
Now aged 18, Gauff made her breakthrough as a 15-year-old at Wimbledon in 2019 when she became the youngest player to reach the main draw through qualifying. She then beat fellow American Venus Williams in straight sets on her way to the fourth round.
That run was not the springboard to more immediate success and it has only been over the last 18 months that Gauff has produced more consistent results. She is now ranked No. 11 in the world after reaching the French Open final in June and is third in the Race to the WTA Finals.
Reflecting on the last few years of her career, Gauff says the win over Williams at Wimbledon was “definitely a lot to deal with”.
“I feel like the pandemic allowed me to press the pause button a little bit,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle.
“That moment - beating Venus at Wimbledon - made me believe that my dreams were closer to reality than it felt.
“I’ve had time to mature. Everything was so accelerated. No one, including me, was expecting anything like 2019 to happen. Everything was going, going, going.
“Honestly, the first month or two of Covid I enjoyed. It’s selfish to say because people were struggling. But I just enjoyed having a moment to be at home with my family. It gave me a moment to reflect on everything.”
As impressive as Gauff has been on the court this season, her maturity also stands out. This week she has spoken about learning that “results don’t define you as a person” and previously being “too focused on trying to fulfill other people’s expectations”. Even though she hasn’t followed up her Wimbledon breakthrough with a Grand Slam victory or WTA 1000 title yet, she seems well positioned and, after her French Open final defeat, determined.
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"I love Iga [Swiatek], but I watched her lift the trophy at the ceremony and I said I want to take in this moment and just visualise and make me want to work harder for me to be the next person to lift that trophy,” said Gauff, who is still the youngest player in the top 50 and, until last weekend when 17-year-old Linda Noskova broke in, the youngest in the top 100.
"So, yeah, it did relax me, but it definitely made me want it even more. I thought I wanted it more before then but I guess seeing it firsthand makes you want it even more."
Champions on and off the court
While six years and four Grand Slam titles separate Gauff and Osaka, they have common ground in both speaking out about human rights issues over the last few years.
Ahead of Wimbledon, Gauff said she was using the US Supreme Court's “backwards” decision on abortion rights as motivation to win the tournament. She has also spoken at a Black Lives Matter rally and called to end gun violence. Gauff’s grandmother, Yvonne Lee, was the first black student at her Florida high school at the age of 15.
“For me, I always talk about issues that I don’t feel are political rights, but are human rights,” said Gauff, who this week is wearing trainers bearing her dad's advice of "you can change the world with your racquet".
“I have Democrats and Republicans and independents all throughout my family. My dad always told me to make an opinion on my own.
“I don’t want to take anything that I have for granted. I want to be known as a tennis player but also as a person who’s not afraid to speak out against inhumane issues. I have a lot to learn but I think I do have a responsibility to speak out.”
Osaka too has used her platform to send messages.
Before every match at the 2020 US Open she wore a face mask bearing the name of a black victim of alleged police or racist violence in the US. Her decision to speak about mental health at the French Open last year was widely praised by fellow athletes and encouraged others to follow.
“I think for all athletes I think it probably made us take a step back and realise that it's OK to put certain things above our sport,” said Gauff.
“I feel like we're used to being told that is wrong. And it was nice to see [Osaka] and Simone Biles put their mental health first. So I think watching her is definitely inspiring and I'm glad that she's a representation of tennis and I think she's a great representation of our sport. I always tell her, you know, like after I lost to her in Cincinnati, keep doing what you’re doing.”
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