If Wang Qiang thought she’d staged Friday’s biggest upset when she ousted Serena Williams from Australian Open 2020, she was quickly forced to reassess when she was one-upped by Coco Gauff.
Just hours after Wang had beaten Serena in three sets at Rod Laver Arena, 15-year-old Gauff stunned defending champion Naomi Osaka 6-3 6-4 on the same court to blow the second quarter of the women’s draw wide open.
The American teenage sensation needed just 67 minutes to complete the biggest upset of the tournament so far, a victory sending her through to the second week of a Grand Slam event for the second time; she also reached the fourth round at Wimbledon 2019.
The match was not supposed to unfold in this manner.
The last time Osaka and Gauff met, in the third round of last year’s US Open, the Japanese star had blown her overwhelmed opponent off the court, winning 6-3 6-0 in 65 minutes.
In that match, Gauff struggled to land first serves or win many of the points when she did, and also struggled to live with Osaka’s explosive power.
This time around, just four months later, the improvement in Gauff’s game was jaw-dropping.
Serving generally bigger, she landed 75 per cent of her first serves – as compared with 45 per cent in New York – and as a result began far more rallies on the front foot.
And when points played out from the back of the court, Gauff was Osaka’s equal this time; while she only finished with six winners to Osaka’s 17, she forced 24 errors from Osaka’s racquet – Osaka only managed to make Gauff err 11 times – and kept her unforced error tally far lower.
The composed nature of the performance stunned everyone. The Rod Laver Arena crowd. Osaka. And Gauff herself.
"Oh my god, I don't even know (where that performance came from) ... honestly like, what is my life?” Gauff laughed on court.
"Two years ago, I lost first round in juniors. And now I'm here. This is crazy. Oh my gosh, I'm on Rod Laver Arena, like, I can't believe this (laughter)."
She later added in press: "Definitely (this victory) has to be somewhere around the top. I thought I played really well today and I was pretty composed and really calm.
"(This time I was ready for) the pace of her ball. She definitely plays faster than most players. I think at US Open I wasn't really prepared for that. And today I definitely showed that I worked on that in the off-season."
Osaka arrived at her press conference shortly after departing the stadium, a little shell-shocked.
“To do stuff differently, I would have had to expect that she played like that, but I wasn't really,” Osaka admitted.
“Her serve is way better than I played her last year.
“You don't want to lose to a 15-year-old, you know. But I guess that's for me, like, a reality check. It doesn't really matter the age of the opponent. Of course she deserves to be here. She played her matches. I just have to work harder.
“I love her, but I don't like this feeling of losing to her.”
Initially, it did not appear Osaka was bound for an earlier-than-expected exit.
She began the match on her toes, intense in her shot-making, and intent on being the aggressor.
But as the set unfolded, it became apparent that her game was off. And that Gauff was not going to be bullied about the court as she had four months earlier at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Osaka’s backhand was the culprit; she netted one to hand Gauff a break point in the eighth game, and missed another to hand the American a 5-3 lead.
More backhand errors flowed in the following game – often when she was crouching in answer to the low trajectory of Gauff’s shots – and the teenager snatched the opening set.
Osaka unraveled at the beginning of the second set, dumping a forehand volley into the net and jerking a forehand wide to give Gauff an early break.
So steady throughout the majority of the match, Gauff’s one wobble came when, leading 6-3, 1-0, 40-15, she double faulted, and then did so again a few points later, to hand the break straight back to the world No.4.
But Osaka was not able to maintain her recently-acquired momentum, and again her backhand woes resurfaced.
So desperate was she for a solution to her troubles that she looked to the big screen after netting a backhand, pleading for a replay to see where it had gone wrong – presumably hoping to see a technical flaw she could correct.
But the replay never came. She never regained control of the shot. Gauff broke serve once more – and never looked back.
Serving for the match with scores at 6-3 5-4, the prodigy didn’t drop a point.
Unlike her understandably emotional celebrations after her victories at Wimbledon and the US Open, this felt more understated. Perhaps it’s a sign she’s truly arrived. And feels she belongs.
She will face either No.14 seed Sofia Kenin or China’s Zhang Shuai for a place in her first major quarterfinal.
"Honestly I was just telling myself one point at a time. And just keep fighting,” Gauff said.
“Because you never know what happens on this court.”
As another big name found out at Melbourne Park on this surprising Friday, that’s exactly right.