“Both of these players know, they must win,” the play-by-play commentator intoned as Angelique Kerber and Naomi Osaka took the court in Singapore on Wednesday. These two women had lost their opening matches at the WTA Finals, which meant that if they harbored any reaonable hopes of advancing to the semifinals this weekend, they needed to turn their form around in a hurry and come out a winner today.
Both of them knew it, and both of them played like it. The result was the match of the tournament so far, fought with raw intensity and leave-it-all-on-the court athleticism for two and a half hours, and eventually won by Kerber, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4. It was fitting, if unfortunate, that the one un-intense shot of the evening was the one that made the razor-thin difference between victory and defeat.
Like so many match-ups at this event, Kerber and Osaka offered an obvious contrast in styles. Osaka was going to attack, and Kerber was going to defend; Osaka was going to try to end points with winners, while Kerber was going to try to win them by forcing Osaka into errors.
But once the match began, that stylistic contrast wasn’t quite as obvious as it first appeared. Kerber won the first set because she was the player who was moving up more quickly and aggressively for her shots, while Osaka was hesitating. Kerber won because she found ways to set up her kill shot, the forehand down the line, and to nail it whenever she saw an opening. Kerber won because, when she went down 0-40 while serving for the set at 5-4, she patiently pushed Osaka back during rallies, and closed with two service winners.
Kerber’s patient aggression looked like it was going to be good enough to win the second set as well. Again, she was the more creative and consistent player, and again, she served at 5-4. But the German was also fighting a second battle in her head: could she close? On Monday, she had won the first set over Kiki Bertens, only to let the lead and the match slip away in three. On Wednesday, Kerber temporarily lost that inner battle again. She was broken by Osaka at 5-4, and broken again for the set at 5-6.
Now it was Osaka who had the momentum, and control of the points. Kerber, meanwhile, had to be filled with a terrible sense of déjà vu. That feeling likely grew worse when she faced a break point at 1-2; one more winner and Osaka would have her first lead of the match. She came within an inch of getting it, but her crosscourt backhand rocketed just wide of the sideline, and Kerber survived for 2-2.
That backhand miss would have haunted Osaka—if she hadn’t made an even more costly and memorable mistake two games later. Serving at 3-3, Osaka went up 40-15, and had the easiest of swing volleys, with the most wide open of open courts, to end the game. Except that she didn’t hit it into the open court. She hit right back to Kerber, who hadn’t bothered to move from her spot in the corner of the court. Kerber, surprised, reflexed up a lob that went over Osaka’s head. Osaka, perhaps because she was frustrated at having to hit another shot, never got herself in the right position, and ended up trying a frying-pan-style, two-handed backhand over her head, which landed short of the net. She smiled afterward, but she wasn’t smiling a few minutes later, when Kerber came back to break her.
That was all the opening Kerber needed. She grabbed onto the lifeline and held on tight over her last two service games. The final rally was fitting: Osaka moved Kerber side to side, and seemed to have the point won half a dozen times. But finally, after she had worked her way forward for the easiest putaway of all, she drilled the ball into the net. It was Osaka’s 50th unforced error of the day.
“One or two points decided the match,” Kerber said. “We both played at a really high level tonight. You push yourself to the limits, it’s the last tournament of the year.”
With the loss, Osaka may have reached her limit, and her breakthrough season may be over. Kerber, to her delight, has some more running to do.
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