NEW YORK — For Naomi Osaka, having Kobe Bryant and Colin Kaepernick in her U.S. Open player box put the last year into perspective. Her next opponent, 15-year-old American Coco Gauff, causes Osaka to be introspective, too.
“You know, like, last year compared to this year there is no way, like, Kobe would sit in my box,” Osaka said after sweeping Poland’s Magda Linette 6-2, 6-4 in the second round Thursday. “Yeah, Kaepernick, too. It’s just crazy who you run into in life.”
Osaka, a 21-year-old who represents Japan, came into last year’s U.S. Open having never made a major quarterfinal. She left with the title after beating Serena Williams in a final that proved controversial for Williams but clutch for Osaka. She then won the Australian Open and became the first Asian player to be ranked No. 1.
Spring and summer struggles followed, but she still has the No. 1 next to her name at this event. And now some very famous friends.
“I know Kobe,” she said of Bryant, who has served a mentor role. “This is actually the first time I have ever met Colin, and it wasn’t even through me. … It’s really cool, but honestly, I just wanted to finish as fast as possible because I didn’t want them to stay in the sun too long.”
Something else happened to Osaka after Thursday’s match that might have seemed unfathomable in the first week last year: a girl cried after getting a hug from her.
“I’d rather people don’t cry,” Osaka said. “It kind of makes me emotional, too. Yeah, I mean, it’s really crazy for me. I know, like, everyone said that the past year has been, like, insane. I think it’s moments like that that sort of make me realize it.”
Gauff, who made a magnetic run to the Wimbledon fourth round, was pushed to three sets in each of her first two matches this week. That included winning her U.S. Open night session debut over Hungarian qualifier Timea Babos 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 on Thursday.
She and Osaka play each other for the first time in Saturday’s third round. But they are already familiar, having practiced together when Osaka was a teen. Their dads are friends, too.
“I don’t have any thoughts on it right now because I have to play doubles tomorrow,” Gauff said, noting her first-round doubles match with 17-year-old Caty McNally, with whom she won the 2018 U.S. Open junior doubles title. “I don’t even know what today is.”
Osaka saw a bit of herself in Gauff when she came across the American keeping to herself in the locker room.
“Off the court she seems like me,” Osaka said. “Well, she seems a little bit more, like, she knows what she’s doing.
“I would love for her to come out of her shell a little bit. I just realize that’s probably what people say about me, too.”
At Wimbledon, Gauff became the youngest woman to reach the second week since Jennifer Capriati in 1991. At the U.S. Open, she is the youngest woman to reach the third round since Anna Kournikova in 1996.
Also Thursday, the first women’s top-10 seeds bowed out: No. 4 Simona Halep, No. 6 Petra Kvitova and No. 9 Aryna Sabalenka.
Halep, the Wimbledon champion, staved off match points, then squandered one before American Taylor Townsend ousted her 2-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4). Townsend, a former junior No. 1, made the third round of a Slam for the second time overall and the first time since the 2014 French Open. She had to qualify into the U.S. Open and notched her first win over a top-10 player in 11 career tries.
Rafael Nadal joined Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer in the third round after Australian Thanasi Kokkinakis withdrew before their match with a shoulder injury.
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