Naomi Osaka authored an indelible mark on the US Open when she comforted the sport’s newest sensation, Coco Gauff, following their highly anticipated third-round match.
It is sure to remembered for longer than their careers, which are only starting, really, even if Osaka said she didn’t expect the moment to go viral.
But the 21-year-old’s quest to win back-to-back titles in New York came to a halt Monday when she was ousted by giant killer Belinda Bencic, 7-5, 6-4. It is thus Bencic, not Osaka, who will face Donna Vekic — the Croatian saved a match point in downing Julia Goerges 6-7(5), 7-5, 6-3 — in the quarterfinals.
No one on the women’s tour has beaten more top-five or top-10 players this season than the 13th seed, and she also made it three victories in a row this year over the Japanese star, who will lose her No. 1 ranking to Ashleigh Barty.
Osaka entered the US Open under an injury cloud, having retired at her previous event in Cincinnati with a knee injury two weeks ago.
Was it a factor under the roof at Arthur Ashe stadium? Osaka could be seen taking a tablet when visited by the trainer at 2-3 in the second set.
“I don’t want to say that that’s the reason that I lost, because I obviously had played three matches before this,” said Osaka. “Yeah, I just needed to take a painkiller.”
It’s been that kind of last 24 hours at the US Open. On Sunday, men’s defending champion Novak Djokovic was forced to retire down two sets to Stan Wawrinka thanks to a shoulder injury the Serb had been carrying for weeks.
Despite the earlier-than-desired departure, Osaka said she is leaving New York, where she used to live, in better spirits than at the French Open in May and Wimbledon in July.
Playing on surfaces she is still getting accustomed to — and she’s still acclimatizing to her newfound stardom, too — Osaka lost in the third and first round on the clay and grass, respectively.
“I mean, in Wimbledon I walked out on you guys,” Osaka continued to reporters, referring to when she exited her press conference early and in tears. “In Roland Garros, I came straight from the match, so I was all gross and I just wanted to get out of there.
“I feel like I’m more chill now. … I feel like I grew. I don’t feel like I put so much weight on one single match. I feel like definitely the tournament that I played here has been the best one so far.”
Perhaps Osaka can take some of the lessons learned to Melbourne in January, where she will be defending that title.
Bencic, 22, has had plenty of injury problems herself, so the win over Osaka is sure to be even sweeter for her.
Like Gauff — and Vekic — she was a precocious teen. In 2014 she reached the quarterfinals in New York and a year later, Bencic strung together a hugely impressive week to win Canada’s Rogers Cup, knocking off the likes of Serena Williams, Simona Halep, Caroline Wozniacki and Ana Ivanovic.
But then the injuries crept in. There was wrist surgery in 2017, back issues and most recently a foot complaint that forced her to retire in Cincinnati.
“I think definitely it was a good time,” Bencic said, referring to the 2014 tournament. “I learned so many things. Everyone expected to go just up.
“That’s not how tennis goes. I think all true athletes have to overcome obstacles, injuries, just tough times. I think it made me a stronger person, better player.”
Bencic, however, also benefited from some luck this week when third-round foe Anett Kontaveit handed her a walkover due to illness.
Bencic, Hingis link
Bencic, who is mainly coached by her dad, Ivan, also has been extensively coached by Melanie Molitor — the mom of Martina Hingis — and exhibits similar court craft to Hingis.
That was fully evidenced in the fifth game of the second, when she beautifully redirected a venomous Osaka drive down the line with a backhand on the way to the set’s lone break.
She had drawn first blood by winning a high-quality first set where both players combined for 31 winners and only 19 unforced errors.
Osaka had clawed back from 0-2 down to level but was broken at 5-5.
Osaka’s exit proves just how difficult it is for anyone other than Williams to retain the US Open women’s title. The last player to do so was Kim Clijsters in 2010.
Bencic has always loved New York — the site of her maiden grand slam quarterfinal in 2014 — and that certainly won’t diminish now.
Vekic reached her first tour final in 2012 as a 16-year-old making her WTA main-draw debut in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Cue the expectations. But she finished outside the top 100 in both 2015 and 2016, before making great strides the last two seasons working with Angelique Kerber’s former coach, Torben Beltz.
“She was also very good with 16, 17,” said Bencic. “Then it was the pressure and some injuries, some difficult times. Now we’re both back. It feels very nice. I’m very happy for her. But definitely I want to win.
“But still I think it will be great that one of us will be in the semifinals.”
In her maiden grand slam quarterfinal, Vekic might have the edge over Bencic since she prevailed when they met at the French Open.