Australian Open 2020: Prodigious Coco Gauff displays nerves of steel to masterfully dispatch defending champion Naomi Osaka

  • That Coco Gauff is definitively a future Grand Slam title winner was made clear at the US Open last year

  • The teenager, who will only turn 16 in March, has pulled off arguably one of the biggest upsets of the tournament in her defeat of defending champion Naomi Osaka

  • And at only 15, there is much, much more yet to come from a player who can only be described as quite the prodigy

That Coco Gauff is definitively a future Grand Slam title winner was made clear at Wimbledon last year. The 15-year-old then made sure of that at the US Open, and just in case you didn’t already know it, repeated the feat this year with a first-round ouster of Venus Williams.

Now, the teenager, who will only turn 16 in March, has pulled off arguably one of the biggest upsets of the tournament in her defeat of defending champion Naomi Osaka. On the night, the younger player - on a court where the total age was still less than that of many other players on the court — looked firmly in control right from the start.

Belying her 15 years, Coco Gauff took centre stage almost straight away, sending some immensely quick serves down the line; her fastest serve at one point clocked 188mph, just a hair under Osaka’s. And what Gauff served with was not just skill, but confidence. If it was a backhand slice across the court that would outfox Osaka, that was what Gauff would have in her arsenal. Able almost to preempt every response from her more experienced — and still, very young, rival, Coco Gauff looked confident and in supreme control of her shots, herself, and indeed, her game. It took Gauff just over half an hour to close out the first set 6-3, and use her biggest weapon — Osaka’s own tendency to commit unforced errors — against her.

 Australian Open 2020: Prodigious Coco Gauff displays nerves of steel to masterfully dispatch defending champion Naomi Osaka

Coco Gauff celebrates after defeating Naomi Osaka at the Australian Open. AP

Gauff started her attack from the get-go, and she was immensely successful at it. Successfully landing 81% of her first serves, the young American knew exactly what she wanted to do — and she did it.

As is the case with many of Osaka’s competitors, they often wait for her to put a foot wrong, and take full advantage; and that is precisely what Coco Gauff, with no years of experience behind her, did. Handed a break opportunity by her Japanese rival in set 1, Gauff held nerve impeccably to serve out that set.

If there were one word that could be used to describe Coco Gauff’s game on Friday, it would be “flawless”. One often thinks that teenagers can be a bit too excitable — but in Gauff’s case, she channelled that excitement into a vim and vigour that saw her chase every shot across the net and more, making near-impossible seeming returns, and cheering loudly with every winning shot — just as one might expect of a teenager. On the other side of the net, Osaka was calm as usual — but also unusually nervous, committing unforced error after unforced error — a total of thirty over the course of that match, in fact.

The first set began with Coco Gauff declaring, rather decisively, that she was here to win. A couple of great shots from the defending champion may have unnerved any other player, particularly a young teenager, but for Gauff, that seemed to be no excuse at all. Whatever Osaka did, the American stood up to. Perhaps a few inexperienced wobbles here and there aside, Gauff had, pardon the cliche, nerves of steel in battling right back and striking just when she needed to.

People often use the adage “age is just a number” for the other end of the extreme, but for 15-year-old Gauff, that most certainly held true. Lulling Osaka into errors and playing some excellent grinding tennis, Coco might even want to nickname herself ‘Elsa’ with just how cool she managed to remain as she finished off on the first of three set points.

Even in the second set, down a set and looking already nervous as Osaka tends to do, she still had some hope. The Japanese ace appeared to be building up some momentum and striking back, looking great in her movement to the net — until both her forehand and her backhand faltered, and repeatedly. Generally so precise, and indeed her tools of the trade, Osaka tried perhaps a bit too late. Or perhaps it was just not enough. Despite a few almighty shots, the former No 1 was clearly rattled — and her teenage rival staid as ever.

Naomi Osaka reacts during her match against Coco Gauff. AP

Naomi Osaka reacts during her match against Coco Gauff. AP

It appears that like many others, Gauff favours quick-strike tennis. Osaka was more comfortable during this game with the longer rallies — but for Gauff’s gameplay, those long rallies were not particularly there for the taking. If it was somehow possible to be both cool-headed and excitable at the same time, well, that was Coco Gauff.

Having already defeated the great Venus Williams twice, Gauff has obviously proved that big names across the net do not unnerve her. And to that end, it is plainly clear to anyone and everyone watching that her mental strength is one of her biggest weapons already, but that immensely strong backhand of hers comes mighty close.

There is nothing to suggest that skill separates the two — even though Osaka is a former World No 1 and a Grand Slam winner to boot, and only a few years older than Gauff herself. But Osaka, as she has shown on so many occasions, can often get nervous and often absorbs pressure in ways that are counterintuitive to her game, even when she is on a good track. Thus, as Simona Halep has done before, and Coco Gauff did on Friday, it is up to her rivals to wait for the other shoe to drop, for Osaka to falter, and then to take full advantage. To be able to do that, and then subsequently play at the level Coco Gauff did takes another level of skill altogether, and coupled with her incredibly fluid movement across every corner of the court, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the teen who took home the spoils is a future Grand Slam champion. And at only 15, there is much, much more yet to come from a player who can only be described as quite the prodigy.

In a funny, poignant reminder of her age, Gauff revealed on court that her ‘tutors would give [me] an easy day today’, and that all she wanted to do next was something most teenagers love to do — sleep.

Except, most teenagers aren’t Cori “Coco” Gauff.

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Updated Date: Jan 24, 2020 21:06:51 IST