After her latest Cinderella run came to a crashing halt in 65 devastating minutes, Coco Gauff walked to her chair on the sideline at Arthur Ashe Stadium and desperately tried not to cry in front of 23,000 fans. For the first time in a summer full of firsts, she looked her 15 years. The tears started streaming down her face, no matter how hard she had tried to suppress them. She had lost in the third round at the US Open, after two impressive wins to start the tournament and an earlier fourth-round appearance at Wimbledon, and her disappointment was painfully clear.
Then, seemingly without a moment of hesitation, Naomi Osaka, the very woman who had handed her a 6-3, 6-0 loss Saturday night, came over to console her and tell her it was all right to cry -- better to do it on the court than alone in the shower in the locker room. It was something Osaka said she knew from experience.
Osaka, who had just won the match in convincing fashion, then insisted Gauff be a part of her postmatch on-court interview, typically reserved for only the winning player. The two bright young stars were both overcome with emotion as they talked to ESPN's Mary Joe Fernandez. The crowd was captivated, seemingly frozen in their seats by what they were seeing.
"She did amazing, and I'm going to learn a lot from this match," a still-tearful Gauff said, before turning to look at Osaka. "She's been so sweet to me, so thank you for this. Thank you."
Six years older, and with two Grand Slam titles and 139 ranking spots separating them, Osaka is only 21 herself. But in that moment, she looked very much the seasoned veteran. She had stayed focused despite two days of nonstop hype ahead of the match. Now she seemed filled with nothing but compassion as she answered Fernandez's question about being a mentor.
She searched for Gauff's parents in the crowd while her voice broke in emotion and her eyes filled with tears. "I remember I used to see you guys training in the same place as us, and, for me, the fact that both of us made it, and we're both still working as hard as we can, it's incredible. I think you guys are amazing, and Coco, I think you're amazing."
It was a beautiful moment, and the tears were no longer contained to the court. There weren't many dry eyes left in the stadium by the time Osaka and Gauff walked off the court.
In many ways, despite the completely different circumstances, it looked remarkably similar to when Osaka had been comforted by Serena Williams following the controversial US Open final on the same court just a year earlier. Of course in that case, Osaka had been both the victor and the consoled as the crowd loudly booed the final results due to their displeasure with penalties assigned to Williams throughout the second set. Williams, herself distraught, was the one trying to cheer up Osaka. Although Osaka never referenced the 2018 championship match Saturday night, it would be hard to think that moment didn't leave an impression on her.
"It was kind of instinctive because when I shook her hand, I saw that she was kind of tearing up a little and it reminded me how young she was," Osaka said later. "For me, I just thought about what I wanted her to feel leaving the court. I wanted her to have her head high, not walk off the court sad. I want her to be aware that she's accomplished so much, and she's still so young."
After 48 hours of incessant hype for the third-round clash between the defending champion and the teenage phenom, the match itself frankly wasn't all that memorable. Osaka took the first three games in only 10 minutes and held on when Gauff started to fight back. Osaka won the first set, then blanked her young opponent in the second for a signature, statement victory. Osaka had five aces on the night and dominated in just about every statistical category.
Naomi Osaka encourages Coco Gauff to join her postmatch interview and both are emotional.
After back-to-back Grand Slam titles in New York and Australia, Osaka has struggled in the past several months. She fired her coach soon after her victory in Melbourne, and then lost in the third round at the French Open. After losing her opener at Wimbledon, she left her news conference at the All England Club in tears. She admitted to not being happy in a Twitter post in July, and in recent weeks has said she was finally enjoying being on the court again. Perhaps it was all those frustrations that made her understand exactly what Gauff was feeling in that very moment.
Osaka has talked openly about not having many friends on tour and about her struggles in the locker room at times. But it is clear she hopes emerging players have a different experience. In typical Osaka fashion, she didn't want to make a big deal out of her actions during her news conference later in the evening, but Gauff didn't hold back in what it meant to her.
"I think she really showed sportsmanship tonight," Gauff said. "I mean, I wasn't expecting it. I'm glad that I was able to experience that moment. I'm glad the crowd was kind of helping me and her.
"After the match, I think she just proved that she's a true athlete. For me, the definition of an athlete is someone who on the court treats you like your worst enemy but off the court can be your best friend. I think that's what she did tonight."
And as a result, a night lacking in drama turned into a night that won't soon be forgotten. Osaka's spontaneous act of kindness, and Gauff's warm reception to it, was more remarkable than any long rally or blistering serve.
A night after Daniil Medvedev's visible obscenity directed toward the crowd in his eventful match, and an hour or so before Nick Kyrgios would use obscenities in his latest argument with an umpire, Osaka and Gauff showed us there was still very much a place for sportsmanship in tennis and beyond.