When a premiere sport loses its biggest name, things can get a bit...awkward.
The NBA has yet to experience such a titanic shift in popularity, as the baton was rightfully passed from Magic Johnson, to Michael Jordan, to Kobe Bryant, to LeBron James. But considering Kevin Durant isn’t exactly the most charismatic or engaging figure, in addition to the fact that he’ll be 33 by the time this upcoming season begins, NBA commissioner Adam Silver has to be losing all kinds of sleep over the slim pickings he has to choose from for the future face of his league.
On a similar note, with age and attrition becoming more and more of a factor in Serena Williams’ historic reign, many have christened four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka as her heir apparent—but there are others vying for the throne.
On Wednesday, we watched Sloane Stephens and Coco Gauff face off for the first time during the U.S. Open; a match in which the 17-year-old Gauff was quickly overpowered (6-4, 6-2) in only 66 minutes of play by the tournament’s 2017 winner.
“I love Coco. I think everyone knows I love Coco,” Stephens told the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd. “At the end of the match, I said, ‘I love you.’ She’s such a great player and I feel so lucky to have seen her grow up and play since she was 8. I know there’s going to be great things ahead for her.”
Gauff heaped similar praise upon Stephens, a woman who’s gone from her idol only to now inevitably becoming one of her fiercest rivals. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago that Stephens attended Gauff’s 10th birthday party after being extended an invite.
“All my friends were excited that professional tennis player Sloane Stephens was at my birthday,” Gauff told reporters.
It was a surreal experience that still resonates with Gauff to this day and provides context as to why Wednesday’s loss was both heartbreaking and encouraging.
“I will say she probably hit her forehand the best that I’ve seen in a long time,” Gauff said. “Also that could be just different because this is my first time facing her. [...] This is my first time feeling her ball. But she definitely played well tonight. She definitely was the better player tonight.”
The Atlanta native then pointed to her inexperience as a factor in her loss.
“I’ve learned that I’m capable of making it far in slams,” she said. “I think if I tighten up a few things, that I’m capable of winning one. The past couple slams I’ve lost to players that have gone to the quarters or won eventually, so it shows that I’m there.
“I feel like there’s just an experience lacking that I have. I definitely think it shows. I think that I just need to play more matches, so I feel more comfortable on the pressure moments.”
Again, this is coming from a 17-year-old, who is the same age Serena was when she and her sister Venus kicked off an unprecedented streak that includes 122 singles titles and 30 Grand Slams between them. After winning her first Grand Slam title in 1999, Serena became the first Black woman to win a Grand Slam since Althea Gibson in 1958—and it’s not presumptuous to assume that with her enormous potential, Gauff is on the brink of unleashing a similar reign of terror upon the sport.
So yes, Naomi Osaka is the absolute truth, as evidenced by her current march towards a fifth Grand Slam title at only 23 years old, but let’s not act like she’s an anomaly. With players like Stephens and Gauff in the fold, the future of tennis looks bright, brilliant, and Black.