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THE FINISH LINE

Teen tennis sensation Gauff eyes more glory at US Open

Reigning champ Osaka, the World No 1 player, heads to New York striving for form, fitness and fun

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Gauff will arrive at Flushing Meadows as a wildcard.

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Osaka's adamant she'll defend her title in NY.

New York

FROM the throngs of young fans who idolise her, to the tennis experts desperately seeking the sport's "next big thing", there is no shortage of expectations on the shoulders of 15-year-old Cori "Coco" Gauff.

After seeing off five-time Wimbledon champion Venus Williams on the way to reaching the last 16 at the All England Club this year, Gauff enters the final Grand Slam of 2019 with the kind of megawatt attention usually reserved only for the sport's highest echelon.

"I think the challenge for her at this event is the expectation, the size of the event, all the attention she's going to be getting," said Mark Kovacs, the executive director of the International Tennis Performance Association. "She moves phenomenally well, she has a lot of power, so she's playing years ahead of her age."

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The Floridian harnessed that power throughout a remarkable junior career in which she won the French Open junior title in 2018.

She claimed the women's doubles title at last month's Washington Open with fellow American teen Catherine McNally, her first WTA crown, but lost in the first round of the singles at the tournament.

Andy Roddick, the US Open champion in 2003, has been impressed by Gauff's performances.

"The talent is there," he told Reuters, adding that there were elements of her game that would improve over the next few years. "Speed, the way you move - she's probably already among the best in the world. And serving power - she's already there, 115, 118 on the radar gun. Those things will only get better."

Gauff arrives at Flushing Meadows as a wildcard, along with four other teens, part of a raft of youngsters hoping to become the next big stars of the sport.

"She is the goods. She is the real deal. She seems to have a great head on her shoulders and I hope that we are not in a rush to make her a start - she will get there," said Roddick.

Gauff is, of course, far from the first young tennis talent to capture the public imagination. American Jennifer Capriati became the youngest Wimbledon semi-finalist in 1991 at age 15, while Russian Maria Sharapova won the tournament in 2004 when she was 17.

Gauff's status as a premier tennis prodigy, however, has matched her popularity as a burgeoning cultural icon, landing a spot as this month's cover girl for Teen Vogue, racking up roughly 400,000 Instagram followers and claiming an audience with former first lady Michelle Obama.

"Thrilled to visit with @CocoGauff today," Mrs Obama tweeted earlier this month. "A wonderful young woman who's showing us that we don't have to wait to see what the next generation can do."

Can Osaka retain?

It has been a roller-coaster 12 months for Japan's Naomi Osaka since her dramatic victory over Serena Williams in the US Open final last year.

After clinching her maiden Grand Slam in a showdown that will always be remembered for Serena Williams' extraordinary row with the umpire, Osaka became the first Japanese to claim the world No 1 ranking when she captured her second slam in January at the Australian Open.

The rising star has gone on to become the second highest-paid female athlete in the world, behind Williams, off the back of a host of lucrative sponsorship deals.

But with the tennis world at her feet, the 21-year-old struggled to kick on. A difficult few months saw her fail to win a tournament, lose her No 1 ranking and crash out of Wimbledon in the first round.

She opened up about her struggles on social media earlier this month, calling the last few months the "worst of my life".

"I can honestly reflect and say I probably haven't had fun playing tennis since Australia and I'm finally coming to terms with that while relearning that fun feeling," Osaka wrote.

Ahead of her US Open defence, she has also been hit with injury, a knee problem forcing her to retire in the quarter-finals of the Cincinnati Masters last week.

She is adamant she will defend her title, saying she would most likely play in New York even against her doctor's wishes.

Osaka, who changed coach in February, has reclaimed the No 1 ranking and will be a match for anyone at the US Open if in the right physical and mental shape.

A key challenge for the Japanese will be dealing with the inevitable questions about last year's final, which left Osaka in tears during the presentation ceremony.

Much of the criticism of Williams centred on how her actions had spoiled a precious moment for Osaka, who was even moved to apologise for beating the home favourite.

Williams has since apologised to Osaka but that does not mean she will take it easy on the Japanese if their paths cross in New York again.

In their first meeting since that infamous final, Williams had little trouble handing out a straight-sets win over Osaka at the Rogers Cup semi-finals in Toronto earlier this month. REUTERS

Osaka, who changed coach in February, has reclaimed the No 1 ranking and will be a match for anyone at the US Open if in the right physical and mental shape.