MELBOURNE, Australia, Jan 22 – Coco Gauff is still learning to drive and was scared when she went on a highway — but the 15-year-old warned Naomi Osaka she will not be overawed when they clash Friday at the Australian Open.
The American prodigy celebrated wildly after fighting back to defeat Romania’s Sorana Cirstea 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 on Wednesday and set up a mouthwatering third-round meeting with the reigning champion.
It is a repeat of the US Open last year, where Japan’s Osaka — a relative veteran at age 22 — defeated the fast-rising Gauff in straight sets.
On that occasion, Osaka consoled a tearful Gauff with a hug after a crushing 6-3, 6-0 victory in just 65 minutes. That was followed by tearful on-court interviews, Osaka asking the teenager to join her with the microphone.
She may not be 16 until March, but Gauff does not expect to shrink again in the limelight.
“I think I’ll be less nervous this time. I think US Open I was nervous,” said Gauff, playing only her third Grand Slam but touted as a long-term successor to idol Serena Williams at the top of women’s tennis.
“It was my first time on Ashe (Arthur Ashe Stadium, centre court in New York).
“We’re both familiar with each other’s games. She plays really aggressive. This time coming in I’m going to be more aggressive.”
Gauff, who stunned Venus Williams in her opener in Melbourne, repeating her win over the seven-time Major winner at Wimbledon last year, said she has “nothing to lose”.
Bu it is a mantra that Gauff struggles to carry into other parts of her life, especially as a learner driver.
“Honestly, the first time I drove on a highway was really nerve-wracking for me,” Gauff, who has two younger brothers, said.
“My older younger brother, he gives me good criticism when it comes to driving.
“They get mad when I drive slow. I don’t understand. I’m driving the speed limit, but that’s slow for them.”
– Mutual respect –
If she is slow and nervy on the roads, Gauff is anything but on the court.
The teenager was two points from defeat in the deciding set against 74th-ranked Cirstea, who at 29 is nearly twice her age.
But Gauff hung in and grabbed the crucial break in the 11th game of the third set, pumping her fists after burying a ferocious overhead smash.
“Come on!” she screamed several times, thanking her court-side cheering squad afterwards for helping to pull her through.
The clash between two of the most exciting young talents in tennis is a treat for Australian Open fans and Osaka kept her end of the bargain with a 6-2, 6-4 defeat of China’s Zheng Saisai.
The former world number one let her frustrations boil over at one point, throwing and kicking her racquet.
But Gauff had only praise for the way the Japanese treated her in New York last year.
“It just shows what being a competitor really is. You might hate the person on the court, but off the court you love them,” said the American.
“Sometimes when we’re on the court, we say things we don’t mean because we have that mentality.
“When it’s all said and done, we still look at each other with respect.”