A year ago at this time, she was ranked No. 72 in the world. She was looking to establish herself in the front line of her sport, hoping to find an uncluttered path toward the top, and believing that she had the talent and temerity to compete favorably with the best players in the world on the premier stages. She seemed to have a clear vision of the player she could be and the honors that might come her way.
Now Naomi Osaka is standing atop the world of tennis at No. 1 in the world, the first Asian player of either sex to realize that extraordinary feat. She is the first woman since Jennifer Capriati in 2001 at the Australian Open and Roland Garros to make a breakthrough at a major and win their next Grand Slam singles event. And she is only the sixth female in the Open Era which started in 1968 to back up their first major by coming through at the next one, joining Evonne Goolagong (1971), Chrissie Evert (1974), Hana Mandlikova (1980-81), Venus Williams (2000), and Capriati in that elite category. Moreover, aside from the multi-faceted Serena Williams on multiple occasions including in 2015, Osaka joined only the two Belgians Justine Henin (2003 and 2004) and Kim Clijsters (2010-2011) to capture a pair of Grand Slam tournaments in a row.
Osaka won a riveting and pendulum swinging Australian Open final over two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova 7-6 (2), 5-7, 6-4 to demonstrate unequivocally that her US Open triumph last September was far from accidental. Osaka had to deal with some traumatic moments before toppling a poised and explosively gifted Kvitova in this title-round contest on Rod Laver Arena, but ultimately the victory was a testament to her character and emotional resilience. She was clearly distraught after three match points eluded her in an agonizing second set, but her third-set response was nothing short of remarkable.
This was a fast paced encounter between two uncompromising big hitters who had never played each other before. The first set was hard fought and could have gone either way. Until 2-2, these two first-rate performers were untroubled on serve. Osaka dropped only two points on her delivery while Kvitova took eight of nine points on her serve. But Osaka was pressed hard in the fifth game. She saved two break points, erasing the first by ceding no ground on the baseline and fending off a fine return from Kvitova, driving a backhand down the line to provoke an error. On the second, Osaka dealt with Kvitova’s crackling shots effectively again, winning that exchange with an unanswerable forehand down the line.
To 3-2 went Osaka after that three-deuce game. In the following game, Kvitova was down break point but the left-hander swung her slice serve wide to set up a forehand winner behind Osaka. She held on for 3-3. Now, in the seventh game, Osaka served precariously at 0-40 but her ground game was simultaneously ultra aggressive and unerring. She calmly swept five points in a row to move ahead 4-3 despite missing six of eight first serves.
Both players had survived strenuous circumstances up until this stage. Osaka had erased five break points against her across two service games while Kvitova had saved one. But both players took control on serve from there, until Kvitova served to stay in the set for the second time at 5-6. She commenced that game with a double fault. Down set point at 30-40, she went with her bread and butter pattern to the backhand in the ad court, opening the court for a forehand down-the-line winner. Osaka garnered a second set point opportunity but a well-executed body serve from Kvitova to the forehand drew a forehand return long from her opponent.
Kvitova gamely held on for 6-6 despite making only five of 10 first serves. But Osaka thoroughly outplayed her 28-year-old adversary in the ensuing tie-break. She released one ace and another service winner, produced three outright ground-stroke winners, and kept Kvitova at bay throughout the sequence. The tiebreaker went convincingly to an assertive Osaka, 7-2.
Understandably, Osaka suffered a brief letdown at the start of the second set. Serving in the second game, she rallied from break point down to earn a game point, but Kvitova’s ball striking at this stage was dazzling. She broke for 2-0. Had Kvitova held in the third game, that set might have played out very differently. She had three game points to advance to 3-0, but Osaka denied Kvitova every time with scorching deep returns. On the penultimate point of that game, Kvitova double faulted. An obstinate Osaka broke back in that critical third game.
Kvitova was unmistakably disconcerted by that turn of events. Osaka held at 30 for 2-2, broke Kvitova at love in the fifth game and held at 30. She had secured four games in a row for a 4-2 lead, and was closing in on the title. Osaka was the better player from the backcourt at this stage, outhitting Kvitova in the short, hard hitting rallies. Her serve was also superior as Kvitova lost some bite and accuracy on her wide serves in the ad court.
The two players exchanged holds to make it 5-3 for Osaka, and now she went full force after an insurance break to close it out. A backhand winner off the net cord gave Osaka 0-15, and then a blazing backhand return took her to 0-30. When Osaka sent a forehand return deep crosscourt to elicit an error, she had reached 0-40 and triple match point. The match seemed firmly in her grasp. How could Kvitova escape from such a treacherous corner?
She had the answer, connecting for an inside out forehand winner, driving a deep forehand down the line to draw an error, and benefitting from a slightly surprising backhand return error. It was deuce. Kvitova followed with two unstoppable first serves in a row. She had taken five points in a row from 0-40, all with immense poise under pressure, largely with controlled aggression, and entirely with the force of her will.
And yet, Osaka still was in an enviable position. At 5-4, she served for the match. But the 21-year-old was plainly rattled by the way Kvitova had battled back in the previous game. Osaka fell behind 0-30, won the next point, but double faulted well long for 15-40. Shaken and apprehensive, Osaka directed a forehand down the line way beyond the baseline. She had been broken at 15. She had largely self-destructed. It was 5-5. Kvitova was very much back in the match.
Nonetheless, Osaka found another opening. At 30-30 in the eleventh game, she laced a two-hander sharply crosscourt and coaxed a forehand error on the run from Kvitova. After all she had endured, Osaka had a break point for 6-5. If she could convert, she would have a second chance to serve for the match. Kvitova wanted no part of that scenario. She made a terrific backhand crosscourt with excellent depth. Osaka’s next shot was short, and Kvitova scampered forward for a forehand crosscourt winner. Back-to-back service winners lifted Kvitova improbably to 6-5.
Distraught by the wildly unpredictable shift in momentum, Osaka served to stay in the second set. Kvitova was not only playing inspired tennis at this juncture but was very fortunate as well. A winner off the net cord gave her the first point of the twelfth game, and then Osaka’s forehand caught the net tape but refused to go over. An unforced error put Osaka in a 0-40 predicament, and she then double faulted. Kvitova had broken at love to steal the set on a run of four consecutive games. In that astounding stretch, she had won 18 of 22 points.
Kvitova swiftly held at love for 1-0 in the third and final set, opening that game with a service winner, closing it with a forehand winner off a return that sat up. Now she had won 22 of the last 26 points and five games in a row. Osaka was in a serious bind. A hold in the second game was imperative for her. But, admirably, she did just that, using a wide serve in the deuce court to set up a forehand crosscourt winner behind Kvitova.
That move back to 1-1 altered the outlook of Osaka. She had been despondent about not finishing off the match in straight sets and her mind was muddled, but now she recovered her concentration and reignited her game. At deuce in the fourth game, Kvitova double faulted. Osaka pounced, striking a clean winner crosscourt off the backhand. She had the break for 2-1 in the third set.
At this moment, both players had won 93 points in the match, but Osaka had the mental edge again. She held at 30 to consolidate her break. After Kvitova held in the fifth game, Osaka was down break point but she released a timely service winner out wide for deuce, an ace for game point and a forehand down-the-line winner to reach 4-2. Kvitova trailed 0-40 in the seventh game, but she was magnificent in holding from triple break point down. A vicious second serve sliced out wide was too good. Then she uncorked a forehand winner down the line for 30-40, an ace for deuce, a service winner for game point and another ace to hold on.
That surely was deeply disturbing for Osaka, eerily reminiscent of Kvitova holding from triple match point down in the second set. Instead of serving with a 5-2 lead in the final set, Osaka was still up by only one break at 4-3. But she met that moment commendably, holding at love. Kvitova refused to surrender, holding at 15 in the ninth game.
And so Osaka served for the match a second time at 5-4 in the third set. She started with an ace out wide in the deuce court, followed by a scintillating forehand winner down the line. Osaka took the next point for 40-0. Kvitova saved a fourth match point to make it 40-15 but Osaka was unshakable. A service winner down the T concluded the stirring battle. She had done it the hard way, but in the end that only made her triumph all the more rewarding.
Osaka thus won her 60th match in a row after winning the first set. She is demonstrably one of the finest front-runners in the sport. The Osaka-Kvitova final lasted 35 games, matching the longest previous Australian Open title round women’s contest since Martina Navratilova halted Evert in the 1981 final 6-7 (4), 6-4, 7-5 after Evert struck back boldly from 1-5 down in the final set to turn the match into a classic.
This final was not an epic, but it was immensely absorbing. Yet Osaka winning two majors in a row to climb to No. 1 is a crucial development for women’s tennis. There were eight different champions at the “Big Four” tournaments over the course of the 2017 and 2018 seasons. Osaka backing up her US Open victory is just what the game needed. New champions always capture the imagination of the public, but now Osaka’s continuity at the majors will make women’s tennis as appealing as it has been for a very long time. She is not ready to dominate the game, but Naomi Osaka will be adding regularly over the next five years to her collection of major titles, and fighting with fervor to remain happily alone at the top of her profession.
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