Fifteen-year-old tennis prodigy Coco Gauff defeated reigning champion Naomi Osaka in straight sets in a major upset at the Australian Open on Friday (January 24) while former runner-up Marin Cilic rolled back the years to outlast ninth seed Roberto Bautista Agut.
The unseeded teen, making her Melbourne debut this year, beat the third seed 6-3, 6-4 in the third round to avenge her heavy defeat at last year’s US Open.
The youngest player in the draw will play 14th seed Sofia Kenin of the United States or China’s Zhang Shuai.
“Oh my gosh. Two years ago I lost the first round in the juniors and now I’m here — this is crazy. I was just telling myself one point at a time and just keep fighting because you never know what happens on this court,” said Gauff.
This was the second installment of a budding rivalry that could light up tennis for the next decade or more, having met at the US Open, where Osaka won easily.
The teenager Gauff, who spent time training with Serena Williams in the off-season, had said she would be less nervous and more aggressive this time around. And so it proved as they rattled through the first five games in barely 15 minutes at the 15,000-capacity Rod Laver Arena.
Osaka, a relative veteran at age 22, fired into the net to drop serve in game eight and then racked up more unforced errors in gifting Gauff the first set in 32 minutes.
“Come on!” shouted Gauff, ranked 67 but fast making a name for herself as the most exciting prospect in women’s tennis.
The young American carried the momentum into the first game of the second set, breaking a subdued and rattled Osaka, a two-time Grand Slam champion.
The Japanese broke back for 1-1 when Gauff volleyed into the net, but it was a rare mistake by the American and she broke once more, before serving for the match at 5-4.
The nerveless teenager clinched victory on the first match point when Osaka fired into the net.
Gauff announced herself to the sporting world at Wimbledon last year when, as a qualifier, she stunned Venus Williams in the first round.
She did the same thing to the seven-time Grand Slam champion on her Melbourne debut this week, then came back from a set and 3-0 down to defeat Sorana Cirstea on Wednesday.
When Gauff and Osaka met five months ago in New York, also in round three, then-world number one Osaka crushed the tearful and overawed teenager 6-3, 6-0 in a little over an hour.
That first clash was memorable also for what happened afterwards, when the teenager cried and Osaka consoled her, before Osaka herself began welling up.
Meanwhile, Cilic moved past Bautista Agut in over five sets and book a spot in the round of 16.
The 31-year-old unseeded Croatian had a forgettable season last year, sliding down the rankings from seven to 39, his lowest year-ending position since 2007.
But he has started the season on fire and claimed a big scalp in beating the Spaniard, a Wimbledon semi-finalist last year, 6-7 (3-7), 6-4, 6-0, 5-7, 6-3 on Melbourne Arena.
“It was four hours of incredible tennis and unreal emotions,” said Cilic, who won 11 games in a row at one point in what was his second five-set match on the trot.
“There was an incredible patch of surreal tennis where every ball was going in. But I knew Roberto would fight back.
“He pushed me all the way in the fourth set, but I had a great mindset in the fifth.” Cilic, whose career-high was beating Roger Federer to win the US Open in 2014, is eyeing a deep run at the Australian Open.
He made the semi-finals at Melbourne Park in 2010 and lost to Federer in a five-set epic in the 2018 decider, after beating Rafael Nadal along the way.
Cilic’s reward is a clash with Greek sixth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas or Canadian 32nd seed Milos Raonic for a place in the quarter-finals.
(With inputs from agencies)