By Rozanna Latiff
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Teenage sensation Coco Gauff survived a three-set thriller against Sorana Cirstea at the Australian Open on Wednesday to book a third-round showdown with defending champion Naomi Osaka for the second Grand Slam in a row.
The 15-year-old American has quickly become a crowd favorite in her debut appearance at the tournament and drew on that support to haul herself back into the match after going a set down, rallying for a 4-6 6-3 7-5 victory over the Romanian.
“You really made me believe,” Gauff told fans at Melbourne Arena.
Gauff, the youngest player in the draw, will next face Japan’s Osaka, who defeated her 6-3 6-0 in the third round of last year’s U.S. Open.
That encounter ended with Osaka drawing praise for allowing an emotional Gauff to thank her home fans in a post-match interview.
“Yeah, it was definitely a good moment I think for both of us, especially me,” Gauff told reporters.
“But I think more just for the people watching, the little girls and little boys who can kind of see what sportsmanship is really.
“When it’s all said and done, we still look at each other with respect and the same.”
Gauff expects to be “less nervous” against Osaka this time around as she looks to make the fourth round at a major for the second time after her Grand Slam debut at Wimbledon last year.
“We’re both familiar with each other’s games. She plays really aggressive. This time coming in, I’m going to be more aggressive,” she said.
Gauff, who beat seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams in the first round, found herself playing catch-up against the composed and experienced Cirstea as she struggled with errors off her forehand.
But after taking the first set Cirstea failed to maintain her standards in the second, allowing Gauff to capture an early break and force the match to a decider.
The final set was a gripping, evenly-matched affair as Gauff battled from a break down to get back on serve at 2-3.
Backed by cheers of “Let’s go, Coco!”, Gauff then broke Cirstea before serving out to clinch the match in two hours and seven minutes.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)