Australian Open experts break down must-see Gauff-Osaka rematch

MELBOURNE, Australia — “Cocomania” is alive in Australia as Coco Gauff makes another run at a Grand Slam tournament. She must get through Australian Open defending champion Naomi Osaka to continue it.

Less than five months after their memorable meeting at the US Open — one that Osaka won in straight sets, then encouraged an emotional Gauff to join her on court after in an act of sportsmanship — the two will meet again. Like that time, Osaka is the reigning champion and Gauff is making her debut at the tournament.

As Gauff and Osaka prepare for the anticipated matchup, our experts offer their outlooks for the rematch.

What do you remember most from the US Open match between Gauff and Osaka, and how has each player changed since then?

Chris Evert: I remember Osaka got really psyched up for it and was zeroed in from the first point and was not going to give Coco an inch. Coco was mostly on the defensive, and Naomi played just beautiful, flawless, concentrated tennis. She knew she had to if she didn’t want to lose to someone younger than her. Coco played fine, it was mostly that Naomi had laser vision in the match.

John McEnroe: All I remember is the end when Osaka put her arm around Gauff and tried to help her through what was a tough moment. But she’s 15 years old. Even Naomi’s [then] just 21, so you’re talking about people who have a lot of great things going for them, but who also need to be mature beyond their years.

I think it brought a kinship to them. I guess they knew each other when Coco was around Naomi in Florida I believe, so it was a cool moment even though it wasn’t a particularly close match.

Pam Shriver: The most memorable thing about that match was the ending. It wasn’t really competitive; I just remember feeling that Osaka was like three levels up from any other player Coco had played earlier in the tournament. It was also her first time on [Arthur] Ashe and she was a little overwhelmed. But we’ll all remember afterwards, when Osaka, given what she had been through the year before with the emotions, that she called Coco in to be part of her postmatch interview — those are memorable moments and they don’t happen all the time.

This match is going to be mentally draining before they even hit the court. What extra steps do they need to take to prepare?

Evert: After interviewing Coco, she’s excited about playing Naomi so she’s going to go in with no pressure whatsoever. She lost pretty easily last time, and she has nothing to lose this time. She’s a little bigger, she’s a little stronger. It’s been five months, and I think she learned something from that match [at the US Open]. The pressure’s going to be on Naomi, she’s going to be the one with the stress.

McEnroe: Naomi is the heavy favorite and just needs to keep doing what she’s doing. Coco is just learning. I’d be more worried down the road that Coco continues to take things step by step in her career than putting too much pressure and emphasis on this one match.

Shriver: I feel like mentally Coco is really strong. She’s dug out a couple of stubborn three-set wins in the last year or so against veterans, this week against [Sorana] Cirstea, the Polona Hercog magic act on Centre Court at Wimbledon … Unfortunately, her forehand still breaks down a bit much and she gives too many double faults away — of course, she’s 15, there are going to be areas where she needs to improve.

I think Osaka has proven that she has had to be beyond mentally tough — look at both her major final wins. The Serena situation was different, she had to stay in her lane and in the zone. She’s become mentally very tough on the court. If you’d told me that a few years ago when she lost a 5-1 lead in the third set against Madison Keys at the US Open, she had turned into a great closer and this mentally tough, I would have said “I don’t think so,” but she has. In a very subtle way, I think she’s more ruthless than I think she appears. In press conferences, she’s a bit different, light and giggles a lot, but yeah she’s tough.

But both Coco and Osaka have both proven they can win Slam matches when they’re not playing their A-game, and that’s an important quality to have.

What does each player need to do to win?

Evert: [Coco] needs to get first serves in and not give Naomi a chance to put away her second serve. She just needs to dictate the points as much as she can, and that’s hitting the ball hard, with depth, and into the corners. She needs to take the control away from Naomi and be the aggressor. Naomi just needs to just stay focused.

McEnroe: Coco is going to be great — she’s already very good — but to think that she will make a run, that’s asking too much. I wouldn’t even want to pick her even if I thought she would win because I think it’s quite a bit of pressure on someone so young. In sports, Hingis was 15 when she won Wimbledon. It’s not impossible but it’s not likely. Stranger things have happened, but it would be beyond belief, in a way.

Naomi is doing the right things already. She has the chance in her career to win six or eight Grand Slams, it’s sort of watching the future right before your eyes.

Shriver: Unless Osaka has an off day, I can’t see Coco winning. I think Coco can only win if Naomi is below par. And Coco needs to have a great day with her forehand and her serve. I feel like her backhand is usually pretty solid. The other thing is she’s good at the net, but against Osaka’s power it’s hard to get there. Osaka just has to be normally balanced, strong, concentrated Osaka and I think she wins.

Predictions for the match?

Evert: I think it’s going to be straight sets [to Osaka], like a 6-4, 7-5 match. I think it’s going to be closer than it was at the US Open. I could be 100 percent wrong, but I just feel that Naomi can’t play any better than she played at the US Open, and Coco can only play a little better than she did.

McEnroe: Naomi. Her, Serena, Barty .. they’re the top three and then the next tier is Halep and those sorts of players.

Shriver: Osaka wins in straight sets but it’s a little closer, 6-3, 6-4.

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