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Jane McManus: The Future Is Bright

A Grand Slam tennis tournament is a freight train rumbling toward inevitability, winnowing 128 competitors to a single champion.

Every once in a while there is a moment however, that is worth pausing for.

Last weekend at the US Open that was a third-round match between top-seeded Naomi Osaka and a lightning bolt of a 15-year old competitor named Coco Gauff.

Tennis fans will remember Osaka’s first Grand Slam title at the US Open last year. Age 20, she faced Serena Williams, a legend who has inspired many of the current women playing to pick up a racket, but this wasn’t Williams’ best moment. She was angered by a serious of calls and objected to being docked a game stemming from an on-court coaching violation.

Osaka remained calm on her side of the net, and played so well that she clearly earned that victory despite the drama.

By the time the trophy ceremony arrived, Osaka was in tears and Williams tried to comfort her. It was a wrenching moments for fans of both players, for fans of tennis. Williams reached out to apologize for diluting the moment of Osaka’s first major, and the two are closer for it.

And here was Osaka again, now with two Grand Slam titles to her name and a veritable elder stateswoman compared to Gauff. whose 140th ranking is emblematic of how green she is despite a rocket of a first serve.

Gauff beat Venus Williams at Wimbledon and went on to reach the fourth round. It was her debut and, lest you think Venus is an easy out these days, grass is her surface and she is still a tough competitor there. Plus, Gauff got to the main draw in SW19 after being given a wild card to the qualifying tournament. So 15 is overachieving in a major way.

Plus there is her personality. Gauff is confident and poised beyond her years. But she still laughs at herself. Take for example a moment after she and doubles partner Caty McNally won a match and were asked about jazz musician Louis Armstrong, for whom the stadium they’d played in was named.

Gauff said, of course, “Saximo.”

Turns out they’d been coached on him should the name come up in a press conference, but Gauff was just a bit off on his nickname, Satchmo, and couldn’t help but good-naturedly laugh about the whole scene.

So now that we know the players, let’s talk about the game.

Osaka, only 21, was up against Gauff and a crowd in Ashe that loves the shooting star of a player exuding potential. As they played, it became clear that Gauff’s game isn’t quite ready for the lights on tennis’ biggest stage. She wasn’t serving well, her head dropped, and Osaka seemed all the more experienced for it.

Osaka had her 6-3, 6-0 win, Gauff began to wipe the tears with her terrycloth wristbands. That’s when Osaka went straight for the young player, offering her words of encouragement and asking her to share the microphone for the on-court postmatch interview so she could address her fans.

The moment expanded. It went from being a perfunctory handshake to being about the future these two young women are creating, for each other, and for the future of the sport.

Osaka knows what it is to feel awful under the spotlight, and she extended that empathy to Gauff. It helps they know each other a bit, but Osaka said what moved her was how terrible it feels to go cry alone in the shower after that kind of loss, and she wanted to convert the pain into catharsis.

For fans in the stands, or watching at home, the moment extended to us, too.

The Williams sisters will not play forever, and for the last 7 or 8 years the question has been about what is next for women’s tennis? Will it be as compelling?

On Saturday night the answer was a resounding yes. With Osaka and Gauff, the future of tennis is in very good hands.

Jane McManus is director of the Center for Sports Communication at Marist College.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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