Coco Gauff vs. Mirra Andreeva: Is this the future of women's tennis?

Coco Gauff, 19, said that her match against Mirra Andreeva, 16, on Saturday will be only the third time she has played someone younger than her. Robert Prange/Getty Images

A day after advancing through French Open qualifying and securing her spot in the first major main draw of her career, 16-year-old Mirra Andreeva was approached by a familiar face on the grounds at Roland Garros.

"Hi, I'm Coco," the woman said. "I don't think we've ever met before but congratulations."

Andreeva later laughed about the interaction with Coco Gauff -- the 2022 French Open runner-up who needed no introduction -- during an interview on the Tennis Channel, but she was clearly thrilled. The two even practiced together that day, trading serves and backhands in front of a sparse group of fans on an outer court. Andreeva was impressed by how nice Gauff was, in addition to her speed and aggressive playing style. Afterward, Gauff called her a "great player."

Since bursting onto the scene last month at Madrid behind stunning victories and endearing interviews, Andreeva has increasingly become a player to watch. And on Saturday, she'll have the biggest chance of her young career to prove she's the real deal, with a third-round clash against Gauff.

It's perhaps the most compelling first-week match in Paris.

Just three years separate Gauff and Andreeva, and while their long-term potential and promise might be comparable, they are currently on the opposite end of the tennis spectrum. Gauff is a top-10 player with three WTA singles titles and a Grand Slam final appearance. Andreeva made her WTA main draw debut last month at Madrid and currently holds a career-high ranking of No. 143. But now they will square off, eyeing the same second-week spot at Roland Garros in what could be a preview of one of the big rivalries in the sport's future.

"Obviously she's young, but I don't see age as a factor, to be honest," Gauff said on Thursday. "You have to play her as you would play any other person that's grown and strong. Obviously she's proved her position here, and I'm going to try to do my best against her."

While Gauff was born in Atlanta and resides in South Florida, and Andreeva originally hails from Siberia, there are certainly parallels in their stories and meteoric rises. Both are open about their desire to win Grand Slam titles. (Andreeva said her dream was 25 of them, to be exact.)

The 19-year-old Gauff became a household name at Wimbledon in 2019, when she came through qualifying to defeat Venus Williams in the opening round, then went on a Cinderella run to the fourth round. Her matches became must-see events, as were her delightful interviews and news conferences and since then she has risen steadily up the sport's ranks. In addition to her Parisian breakthrough last year, she reached the quarterfinals at the 2022 US Open. She has also been prolific on the doubles court with eight titles, including three at the 1000-level, and even reached the No. 1 ranking in 2022.

Andreeva opened 2023 with a finals appearance in the Australian Open junior draw. She then won back-to-back ITF titles and was given a wild card into the main draw at Madrid. It was there she became the youngest player to win a main draw match at a 1000-level event since -- you guessed it -- Gauff.

During the tournament, Andreeva defeated 2021 US Open finalist Leylah Fernandez and top-20 seeds Beatriz Haddad Maia and Magda Linette before ultimately falling in the round of 16 to Aryna Sabalenka. An interview with the Tennis Channel, in which she called Andy Murray "beautiful" after seeing him in person at the event, went immediately viral, further cementing her star-on-the-rise status. They have since exchanged text messages, and Andreeva jokingly credited his "good luck" message ahead of the French Open for her success.

Now it's Gauff who enters their third-round match in an unfamiliar role -- the experienced veteran playing against the upstart teenager. It's something she insists she's not concerned about.

"This will be my third time playing someone younger than me," Gauff said. "Honestly, the first two times I didn't even think about it because when you step on the court, you just see your opponent, and you don't really think about the personal side of things. You just see forehand, backhand, serve and all the same."

Gauff arrived in Paris after a lackluster clay season overall in singles -- failing to record consecutive victories prior to Roland Garros -- but with high expectations after last year's showing. She needed three sets in her opener against Rebeka Masarova, but looked far more in control during her second-round 6-2, 6-3 win over Julia Grabher on Thursday.

Andreeva, however, has left nothing to doubt. Including her three matches in qualifying, she has yet to drop a set. In the first round, against Alison Riske-Amritraj, a former top-20 player, Andreeva lost just three games in a match that lasted under an hour. Andreeva didn't need much more time in her second-round outing on Thursday either. She notched a 6-1, 6-2 victory over French player Diane Parry, despite a partisan crowd on Court Simonne-Mathieu. She said she wasn't fazed by the lack of support, nor the size of the court.

"The Simonne-Mathieu is not that big for me, so for me it was comfortable," Andreeva said confidently after the win. "I felt as [I would] on any other court. Of course, I've been prepared that the crowd, like maybe 10 percent of the crowd will be for me and 90 percent for her, so I was just trying to stay calm and just focus on my game."

With the win, Andreeva became the youngest woman to advance to the third round of the French Open since 2005 -- two years before she was born. Gauff first reached the same round at Roland Garros as a 17-year-old and went on to make the quarterfinals that year.

Almost certainly playing again on one of the large show courts on Saturday, both players will need to be at their best to secure the victory. Gauff said she would be working with her team to come up with a strategy going in. And Andreeva will need all of her confidence and momentum in order to win the biggest match of her life so far. On Thursday, she seemed focused on doing just that.

"For now my goal is to win match by match, to win next match," Andreeva said. "Then if I win this match, to win next match again. That's it. Just to win match by match."