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Naomi Osaka vs. Coco Gauff Could Be The Next Great Tennis Rivalry

Tennis fans are receiving a treat early at the 2020 Australian Open, in the form of a match between two of the sport’s rising stars. Naomi Osaka, the 22-year-old who won Melbourne last year, will take on 15-year-old Cori “Coco” Gauff on Friday at 3 a.m. EST. The best part? The two players couldn’t be more different.

Osaka won her first major as a 20-year-old at the 2018 U.S. Open. Despite showing some early promise, prior to that breakthrough she had not made it beyond the fourth round at a Grand Slam. She was shy off the court, and she was inconsistent on it — at times crushing the ball, but overall making too many mistakes. Few saw her as likely to become a top player, let alone beating Serena Williams in a U.S. Open final and winning two majors by the age of 21.

On the other hand, Gauff has ample confidence that belies her youth, playing with the intelligence and technique of a more seasoned player. If opponents get to Gauff, she changes her tactics. And no one — not even Osaka — can run as fast as she can. While Osaka can punish her opponents, Gauff simply wears them down, forcing them to miss as the match progresses.

Many tennis phenoms emerge early and fully formed. But Osaka started a little late. From 2012 to 2015, she struggled to break out of a large pack, with a peak year-end ranking of No. 203. She closed out 2017 at No. 68 and then shot to the top tier a year later — after winning the U.S. Open. Gauff’s case is a more typical one. A fireball of talent and potential, she completed her electric first season last year with a ranking of No. 68.

Rivalries — those that highlight differences in both play style and demeanor — are a big part of the sport’s appeal. Think about Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, a righty and lefty who couldn’t be more different in terms of personality and style on the court. The same goes for John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg, and Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert. With the contrasting styles and personalities of Osaka and Gauff, could we be seeing the start of a rivalry for the next generation? This match in Melbourne may set the stage for many years to come.

When the two played at the U.S. Open last year — a 6-3, 6-0 win for Osaka — Gauff played below her capability. Gauff cried on court; Osaka hugged her and shared the postgame interview with her. “I think U.S. Open, I was nervous. It was my first time on Ashe,” Gauff said this week about that match. But she’s not worried about her nerves now. “I think I’m more confident this time around.”

Tom Perrotta is a tennis writer based out of Brooklyn and frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal.