Coco Gauff takes center stage at the Australian Open

While most of us were sleeping, something happened that would have made surrendering a few hours of precious slumber totally worth it.

As America dozed on Thursday night, Coco Gauff was wide awake, a long way from her Florida home but living out a dream in her latest assault on women’s tennis’ biggest stages.

Gauff, the 15-year-old phenom with a likability factor that is off the scale, sunk defending champion and recent world No. 1 Naomi Osaka in the third round of the Australian Open with an emphatic win in straight sets (6-3, 6-4).

Nighttime rest is important, and the result — for all Gauff’s continued improvement — was a significant upset that few saw coming. So don’t feel too bad about missing it, even though it would have only required an hour or so of viewing time. You’ll see plenty more of the youngster in the years to come.

Or maybe even in the days to come.

“Coco Gauff is … still growing in every way, and still fresh to the world of professional tennis, but she can win this Australian Open,” Kurt Streeter wrote in The New York Times. “That is no stretch. Not anymore.”

Gauff was given an assist in some ways by Osaka, who turned in a performance littered with nervousness and unforced errors, yet that makes the outcome more impressive. For this was the most anticipated matchup of the tournament so far, one taking place amid the shadow of sadness caused by the rampant Australian bushfires, and all eyes were on the marquee session clash.

The two women faced off at the U.S. Open last year, too, with Gauff admitting she was overwhelmed by the occasion and Osaka showing great grace by consoling the teenager after the match and inviting her to share the on-court interviewer’s microphone.

This time it was Osaka who showed the cracks and Gauff who displayed the composure required to both book her spot in the fourth round and to chalk off another huge win — wins that are beginning to pile up already in her short career.

On the same day that Serena Williams, 38, suffered a shocking defeat and an end, for now, of her quest to reach 24 Grand Slam titles, the temptation to rush ahead and anoint Gauff as a future successor was nearly irresistible.

That’s off into the distance, maybe, and even then a lifetime Slam haul a fraction as prolific as Williams’ would constitute greatness. For now, winning matches in front of 15,000 people, let alone tournaments, is still new to the phenom.

“I didn’t really know what to do,” Gauff said afterwards, describing the moment of realization. “I was just trying to enjoy and savor the moment. I still wouldn’t say I’m used to this.”

Tennis is speedily getting used to Gauff. She is limited in the number of tournaments she can play due to her age, so she picks her spots. Typically, she delivers — both in terms of terms of performance and dramatic exploits. After bursting onto the public radar by reaching the third round at Wimbledon last summer, she did it again at the U.S. Open and has now gone at least one better here.

And so a star has been born, and we will watch and see as to how long and how brightly it shines. Given her temperament, physicality and technique, there is no obvious reason for her rise to slow down, but this is the unpredictable world of women’s tennis, so you can never be too sure.

Let’s keep our fingers crossed. Gauff has a mix of personality and ability that is truly sprinkled with stardust. Her friendly disposition and infectious humor are as much a part of the reason why “#Cocomania” is trending once more as her play on the court.

During the postgame interview, she had the crowd eating out of her hand with funny anecdotes about losing in the first round of the junior competition in Melbourne just two years ago and of being concerned about getting an extension for an online school assignment that was due.

It was fun stuff, and this has been a fun journey that might just continue deep into next week. Gauff isn’t fazed by history, becoming the youngest player to beat a top five opponent since Jennifer Capriati in 1991. She won’t be bothered by the assumption that a 15-year-old can’t win a major, either, because she believes she can beat anyone.

For all her effervescence, the on-court competitor is fierce, determined and already blessed with nerves of steel. The scariest thought of all is that she’s getting even better, rapidly. Off the court, she’ll give anyone a welcoming smile. On it, she won’t give you an inch.