Tears are not unfamiliar in women’s tennis. But the winner inviting her defeated competitor to share the postmatch spotlight is.
And yet that’s what happened after No. 1-ranked Naomi Osaka, the defending tournament champion, defeated Coco Gauff 6-3, 6-0 in the third round of the US Open Aug. 31.
It was the 15-year-old Gauff’s first time playing a Grand Slam tournament match in the giant Arthur Ashe Stadium, and in primetime, no less.
“Naomi asked me to do the on-court interview with her and I said no, because I knew I was going to cry the whole time, but she encouraged me to do it,” Gauff said during the televised interview, still wiping away tears. “It was amazing. She did amazing and I’m going to learn a lot from this match. She’s been so sweet to me.”
What a moment — so raw, so genuine, so vulnerable and sweet, made even more so by the fact that Osaka, too, began to choke up as she made a point to praise Gauff’s parents, Candi and Corey.
“You guys raised an amazing player,” Osaka, 21, said. “I remember I used to see you guys — I don’t wanna cry — I remember I used to see you guys training in the same place as us. For me, the fact that both of us made it, and we’re both still working as hard as we can, I think it’s incredible. I think you guys are amazing, and I think, Coco, you’re amazing.”
The mutual admiration lovefest continued into Osaka’s postmatch news conference, where the defending champ said of Gauff, “she seems like a sweetheart. … She seems like a really intelligent girl.” Osaka explained that she simply wanted to take some of the pressure off of Gauff.
“Tennis is a solo sport,” Osaka said. “Of course there are people that are very fierce on and off the court. I think that for me, like, I always feel for the person because I know what it’s like to just have to go play a match, lose the match, then you’ve got to go and do press. It’s just terrible.”
But Osaka’s actions did something else, too. Osaka took the love her hero, Serena Williams, expressed for her in an essay in the July issue of Harper’s Bazaar and paid it forward. Intentional or not, black girl magic became black girl solidarity. And it happened at the site of the ugliest championship finish in US Open history, when Osaka defeated Williams a year ago to win her first Grand Slam, only to have the event marred by boos directed toward official Carlos Ramos.
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In a text message to Osaka, which Williams published in her essay, Williams wrote: “I would never, ever want the light to shine away from another female, specifically another black female athlete. I can’t wait for your future, and believe me I will always be watching as a big fan!”
When it comes to winners, losers, tears, and moments that live forever in video clips and memes, the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards are the pop culture holy grail. It’s been a decade since Kanye West stormed onto the VMAs stage when Taylor Swift was announced as the winner for best female video for “You Belong With Me,” to say “I’ma let you finish but…” to claim that the award rightfully belonged to Beyoncé.
A recent Billboard oral history of the moment revealed that Beyoncé, as well as Swift, reacted to West’s antics with tears once safely away from the cameras. Beyoncé was 27 at the time and Swift was 19. Both women wanted to leave the ceremony early, but Van Toffler, the former president of Viacom Media Networks Music & Logo Group, who was one of many producing the show that night, persuaded them to stay.
“I see [Big Machine record label founder] Scott Borchetta and I say, ‘Please have [Swift] stay, I will figure out a way to deal with this,’ ” Toffler recalled. “I walk behind the stage — and, sure enough, there is Beyoncé and her dad, and she is crying. She was like, ‘I didn’t know this was going to happen, I feel so bad for her.’
“I think perhaps for the only time in history at the VMAs — we knew who was going to win the awards, we had a plan for it [but did not tell the artists ahead of time] — at some point I let [Beyoncé] know that she was probably going to be up on the podium at the end of the show for an award. And wouldn’t it be nice to have Taylor come up and have her moment then? I had to indicate to her that she needed to stay, and perhaps this is a way to have this come full circle and let [Taylor] have her moment. I would normally not say anything, but I had two crying artists.”
That conciliatory moment between the two of the biggest pop stars of the past decade had to be produced by a television professional trying to clean up a mess of a live broadcast. Osaka, on the other hand, unilaterally made the split-second decision to share the mic with Gauff out of a sense of empathy and compassion.
The smart tennis she played to dispatch Gauff in 65 quick minutes was followed by even smarter image-crafting, even if that’s not what was at the top of Osaka’s mind when she did it. When I asked Osaka if she’d given any thought to the fact that the moment would likely go viral, given her status within in the sport and the obvious love for Gauff, she said no.
“For me, I just thought about what I wanted her to feel leaving the court,” Osaka said. “Like, I wanted her to have her head high, not walk off the court sad. I want her to, like, be aware that she’s accomplished so much and she’s still so young. Honestly, like, I know that you guys are kind of coming at her with love, too. But I feel like the amount of media on her right now is kind of insane for her age. I just want her to, like, take care of herself.”
Both Gauff and Osaka entered tennis because they were inspired by the Williams sisters. They both live and train in Florida and both were coached by their fathers. Corey Gauff still coaches his daughter, and Osaka is now working with Jermaine Jenkins after splitting with Sascha Bajin following her victory at this year’s Australian Open. Just as the klieg lights found Osaka after she knocked off the younger Williams sister last year, Gauff experienced a similar fame rocket when she defeated Venus Williams in the first round of Wimbledon this year.
They don’t know each other well, but both women recalled seeing each other at the Polo Club in Boca Raton, Florida. Osaka now calls the Evert Tennis Academy, which is also in Boca Raton, her home base, but she said she used to see Gauff with her father at the Polo Club when Gauff was about 10 years old. When Osaka saw Gauff entering Arthur Ashe Stadium to make her debut on the famous court, she had to find a way to quell her own emotions. It was only a year ago that she was in the same situation.
“During the walk-on, I almost, like, cried a little bit because she was hugging her dad goodbye,” Osaka said. “Not, like, goodbye, but before the match, she, like, hugs her dad. I was looking at that like, ‘Oh, my God, don’t do this to me before the match.’
“Here’s the thing: Like, I literally was training at the same place as her. Like, we would never hit together, but it was always just us putting in the most amount of hours. She was always with her dad just practicing. Honestly, I think she was practicing more than me when I was with my dad. Just when I saw them hug, I was, like, ‘Oh, my God.’ … It’s crazy to see how far she’s come in such a little amount of time.”