MELBOURNE, Australia -- Coco Gauff had just won the biggest match of her life and was clearly still in shock when she was announced as the victor to the packed crowd at Rod Laver Arena. The 15-year-old walked out onto the court and instead of turning and waving to all sides of the crowd as expected, she put her hands on her hips and stared directly at her coaches and parents in her box with wide eyes.
Moments later, she summed up exactly what she was thinking in her on-court interview. "Honestly, like, what is my life?" she said with a laugh. "Like, oh my gosh, two years ago, I lost in the first round in juniors, and now I'm here. This is crazy."
It has been a monumental rise for Gauff in recent months, and "crazy" might be an understatement. She started 2019 ranked No. 684, and then, on Friday night, she beat No. 3 seed Naomi Osaka, the defending champion and fourth-ranked player in the world, 6-3, 6-4, in just over an hour in the third round of the Australian Open. Over the past year, she has advanced to the fourth round at Wimbledon and the third round at the US Open (where she lost to Osaka), beat her hero Venus Williams twice, won her first singles title at Linz and lifted two doubles trophies with her best friend Caty McNally. She earned high-profile fans such as Michelle Obama, Magic Johnson, Abby Wambach and -- her personal favorite -- Jaden Smith.
Oh, and she got her learner's permit to drive and finished her freshman year of high school somewhere in there, too.
What happened on Friday wasn't "a star is born" moment, and it certainly wasn't a fluke; instead, it was a coronation of tennis' future royalty. Not only did she become the youngest player since Jennifer Capriati in 1991 to beat a top-five player or a defending major champion, she also had the crowd eating out of the palm of her hand with her every move and giggle following the win. When she was asked if she had ever met the court's namesake, she said she hadn't but would love to get a selfie with him for Instagram. By the day's end, Laver had tweeted at her saying he wanted to meet her, too.
Hello @CocoGauff - congratulations on your incredible victory tonight. I would love to meet you too. ��
- Rod Laver (@rodlaver) January 24, 2020
Don't believe just how big Gauff's night was? Consider this: One of the very first people to congratulate her was Roger Federer. The 20-time Grand Slam champion was preparing to take the court for his match against John Millman, but he stopped to give her a hug first -- before her parents even had a chance to do so. The two share an agent, and he once famously told her she was destined for greatness after that devastating loss she referenced on court at the juniors level in 2018. Of course she claims she still gets starstruck by him, and based on the reaction of media members to such a revelation, that only adds to her humble charm.
After losing against Osaka 6-3, 6-0 in front of a capacity Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd at last year's US Open, a loss that made global headlines for the players' incredible postmatch sportsmanship, Gauff felt more comfortable in the rematch simply because she knew what to expect. She tried to prepare accordingly and learn from the loss.
"Definitely the pace of her ball," she said when asked what she discovered in their first meeting. "She definitely plays faster than most players. I think, at US Open, I wasn't really prepared for that, and today I definitely showed that I worked on that in the offseason."
Coco Gauff looking for a selfie with Rod Laver
Coco Gauff talks being let off her school assignments and looking for a selfie with tennis legend Rod Laver.
The 22-year-old Osaka, who admitted to struggling under the weight of having to defend her title, didn't play well. She had 30 unforced errors and never seemed to find her rhythm. She blamed herself for the loss, but was complimentary of Gauff's game and improvements.
"[She was] more aggressive," Osaka said after the match. "Her serve is way better than when I played her last year. But, yeah, it's hard, because you learn more when you lose. The winner doesn't really learn that much. I feel like I wasn't really swinging freely and she was."
On a day full of huge upsets in Melbourne -- Serena Williams, Caroline Wozniacki and Madison Keys were also sent home early -- Gauff did what none of her far more experienced peers could do: tune out all the excitement and expectations and focus simply on her game. She said earlier in the week she always plays with nothing to lose, and that was abundantly clear Friday. As Osaka desperately tried to adjust, Gauff stayed the course and maintained a composure and poise well beyond her years. Unlike during their initial clash, she didn't let herself buy into the hype, of which there was more than enough.
"I was a lot more calm and less about, you know -- this match was hyped up, too. But also US Open was hyped up," she said. "I think now coming into this, I'm just going to have fun, play my best tennis and see what happens. I came out with the win today, and I think that made the difference."
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Gauff will face fellow American Sofia Kenin on Sunday in the fourth round. Her quarter of the draw was once considered the toughest with the inclusion of Osaka and Serena Williams, but it has opened up considerably. Instead of potentially having to face Williams, the 23-time Grand Slam winner, in the quarterfinals, Gauff would face Wang Qiang or Ons Jabeur. Both are talented players who are clearly capable of big wins themselves, but it's certainly not improbable to think Gauff could beat either of them if she were to advance that far.
Of course, she's not letting herself think about that yet. She's locked in on her next doubles match with McNally -- together they're known as #McCoco -- against Demi Schuurs and Kveta Peschke. Their pairing drew increasingly larger crowds at the US Open with each singles appearance, and one can expect the same here on Saturday despite a Court 8 assignment.
There's no way to know when Gauff's run in Melbourne, in singles or doubles, will come to an end and what the final results will be, but one thing is for sure -- she is not going anywhere. The future has arrived, and you can call her Coco. But first, she's got a selfie to take with Rod Laver.