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Bond formed with fans by Gauff and Osaka bodes well for the future of tennis

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 8/5/2022 By Ron Kroichick

Thursday night’s scene at the Silicon Valley Classic illustrates why tennis seems fresh and vibrant these days.

A capacity crowd of 2,250 filled the small, makeshift stadium at San Jose State. But the number of spectators didn’t matter as much as their level of engagement in the second-round match between Coco Gauff and Naomi Osaka.

They were into it.

This stretched beyond the howling serves and booming ground strokes during Gauff’s 6-4, 6-4 victory. The tennis was high-level, entertaining on its own merits. But the fans clearly felt connected to both players in a deeper way.

Gauff is 18, ranked No. 11 in the world, a French Open finalist in June and a captivating blend of talent, poise and candor. She has spoken out publicly on societal issues including racial injustice, abortion rights and gun safety, showing maturity beyond her years.

Osaka is 24, a four-time Grand Slam winner and former world No. 1. She launched a global conversation last year about mental health, when she took a break from tennis and openly talked about fighting depression and anxiety.

Gauff and Osaka have a burgeoning rivalry on the court, absolutely, but just as importantly they carry an obvious kinship. That’s good for the game. That’s vital for the game, especially as Serena and Venus Williams fade from prominence.

“I think it’s very important, especially in women’s tennis,” Gauff said in her post-match news conference. “There’s definitely a transition going on. Our competitiveness is something that will last a long time. I think people enjoy seeing it, because we have a lot of respect for each other, and it shows when we play.”

Gauff does not look or sound like a teenager. She exudes an old-soul vibe, like a person completely comfortable in her own skin and totally at ease shouldering the burdens of life in the spotlight.

Witness her on-court interview moments after Thursday night’s match. Gauff was asked about the wall of fame outside the stadium, featuring past greats such as Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova and Serena Williams.

Gauff, in acknowledging their trailblazing spirit, also deftly mentioned Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe, fellow African Americans who helped pave the way for her. The kid knows her history.

She also conveyed the tantalizing possibilities of a long-term battle with Osaka.

“I feel like Naomi and I are the future,” Gauff said. Then she paused, caught herself and said in a not-at-all-cocky, almost sheepish way, “Actually, the future is probably already here.”

“I just feel like me and her (Osaka), we really speak out on these issues,” Gauff said. “It’s not common in tennis to talk about these things, and I’m glad you guys (fans) support us and what we say, and care about us no matter how we do.”

Each player received a loud ovation upon her introduction before the match. Several spectators brought signs declaring their support for Gauff or Osaka, including one that referenced both and read: “Thanks for being you.”

Gauff and Osaka have some history together, most memorably at the 2019 U.S. Open. Gauff, then 15, was only a few months removed from her splashy introduction to the world at Wimbledon, where she beat Venus Williams (her idol) on her way to reaching the fourth round.

Later that summer, Gauff advanced to the third round of the U.S. Open, only for Osaka to thrash her 6-3, 6-0. But the enduring moment occurred after the match, when Osaka insisted Gauff join her for the on-court interview with Mary Joe Fernandez.

That instantly showed Osaka’s grace and warmth. Gauff couldn’t hold back her tears after the loss, and eventually Osaka began crying, too. Talk about a humanizing scene.

“When I shook her hand, I saw that she was kind of tearing up a little,” Osaka said that night. “It reminded me how young she was.”

Fast forward to August 2022 and Gauff no longer seems so young. Osaka knows better than anyone. She attracted abundant attention, including stinging criticism, when she withdrew from last year’s French Open, citing the need to protect her mental health.

The first player to reach out to Osaka, sending a message of support: Gauff, all of 17 at the time.

“I’ve never forgotten that,” Osaka said Thursday night. “I have so much love and respect for her. She behaves well beyond her age. I want to see her grow and flourish. … She’s very much a star, and she’s definitely important for the game.”

John McEnroe once predicted Gauff would become No. 1 in the world by age 20, and she may make him look prophetic. She’s a dynamic athlete, covering the court with long strides, and she showed her effortless power in unleashing seven aces against Osaka.

Also notable was both players’ expressiveness during the match. Gauff firmly and repeatedly shook her left fist after winning crucial points. Osaka smiled at close calls and admirably fought back from a 5-1, love-40 deficit in the second set, staving off six match points before finally succumbing.

Gauff later said she tried to sing along with the music during changeovers, to help calm herself. She also looked at her shoes to see her brother’s name scrawled on the laces, telling herself to set a good example and not fold under pressure.

These small moments matter. Tennis always will be a niche sport, like golf, but many fans feel a special attachment to the game because they play recreationally late into life. They also want to feel a special attachment to the players, a reason to root for someone.

Gauff and Osaka provide many reasons, and that bodes well for tennis’ future.

Ron Kroichick is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @ronkroichick


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