2019 Top Matches, No. 4: Osaka d. Kvitova, Australian Open final

2019 Top Matches, No. 4: Osaka d. Kvitova, Australian Open final

It looked like it might end with a legendary comeback by the left-handed Czech. Instead, the clash ended with a set-long goal-line stand by the Japanese star.

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“I mean, we’ve never played before. I think to have the opportunity to play her for the first time in a final of a Grand Slam is something very amazing.”

That’s what 21-year-old Naomi Osaka said when she was asked about the prospect of facing Petra Kvitova in the Australian Open final. And that’s pretty much what she said again after she had beaten Kvitova to win her second straight major title.

“I’m really honored to have played you in the final of a Grand Slam,” Osaka said, turning to a tearful Kvitova during the trophy ceremony.

Osaka’s reflexive humility has made her a darling of the press. The empathy she showed at this year’s US Open, when she offered to do her post-match interview with the young woman she had just beaten, Coco Gauff, made her thousands of new fans. But no one, not even Osaka, wins two straight majors and becomes No. 1 at 21 on humility and empathy alone. Her unassuming veneer masks a deeply stubborn competitiveness. Like her idol, Serena Williams, Osaka was first drawn to the court by a desire not just to do what her older sister was doing, but to do it better.

“I don’t remember liking to hit the ball,” Osaka told The New York Times last summer. “The main thing was, I wanted to beat my sister [Mari]. For her, it wasn’t a competition, but for me, every day was a competition. Every day, I’d say, ‘I’m going to beat you tomorrow.”

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That competitiveness was never on greater display than it was during this year’s Australian Open. Osaka came back from 5-7, 1-4 down to beat Su-Wei Hsieh. She came from a set down to sneak past Anastasija Sevastova. She outplayed former No. 1 Karolina Pliskova down the stretch. Against Kvitova, Osaka squandered three match points in the second set and was on the verge of a meltdown at the start of the third, but she won anyway. Again and again, instead of unraveling, Osaka gathered herself.

Few players have ever had so much gathering to do in the middle of a Grand Slam final. Osaka won the first set and went up 5-3, 40-0, triple championship point. Kvitova looked all but defeated. Inches from the finish line, though, Osaka tripped and Kvitova raced past her, saving those three match points and winning four straight games for the second set. When Kvitova held at love to go up 1-0 in the third, it looked like destiny was with the Czech, and that Osaka was heading toward a potentially career-shattering defeat.

But instead of a legendary comeback by Kvitova, this final ended with an extended goal-line stand by Osaka. After briefly losing her mind at the end of the second set, she regrouped, reclaimed the initiative, and went back to out-hitting one of the biggest hitters in WTA history.

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In the process, Osaka showed that humility can be more than just an appealing personality trait; it can also be an effective mental approach. Rather than asserting her dominance at the end, Osaka won by asserting her lack of privilege.

“I can’t really act entitled,” Osaka said. “To be playing one of the best players in the world, to lose a set, suddenly to think I’m so much better than her.”

By the time the match was over, Osaka was better than anyone. The win lifted her to No. 1, and gave tennis a new type of star for a new decade to come.