In the most highly-anticipated fourth round of the fortnight, No. 3 seed Naomi Osaka did not disappoint, quite literally making no mistakes in the final 22 points of her clash with Garbiñe Muguruza to triumph, 4-6, 6-4, 7-5.
"I feel like today, I didn't really know what to expect because I'd never played her before. I just knew it was going to be tough. I'm kind of tired right now," Osaka said during her on-court interview.
Osaka trailed Muguruza by two match points at 5-3 in the final set, only to roar through the final four games and extend her winning streak to 18 in just under two hours on Rod Laver Arena.
That it marked the first meeting between Muguruza and Osaka speaks to just how absent the Spaniard had been during the reigning US Open champion’s two-year ascent to the top of the game, nearly falling out of the Top 40 at the end of 2019.
Still, the former world No. 1 Spaniard showed flashes of the two-time Grand Slam champion she is during her unseeded run to the Australian Open final last year, and she has played near-perfect tennis in Melbourne Park to start the new season.
Avenging her loss to Sofia Kenin last week, she finished runner-up to Ashleigh Barty at the Yarra Valley Classic. Moving on to Melbourne proper, she allowed only 10 games for the opposition before facing Osaka, who herself had lost 13 games in three matches.
"Today I feel like I was a bit intimidated because I knew she was playing really well coming into this match," Osaka said. "On the stressful points, I had to go within myself. I know I probably hit a lot of unforced errors but it was something I needed to do because I couldn't give her any short balls, otherwise she'd finish them."
On a 17-match winning streak dating back to the post-lockdown resumption, Osaka continued her quest for a second Australian Open title with an early 2-0 advantage, only for Muguruza’s ruthless consistency to unravel the Japanese star. Serving at an astounding 86 percent at the outset, the No. 14 seed won eight of the next 10 games to move ahead by a set and a break.
Osaka, who found herself in similarly dire straits against Victoria Azarenka at the US Open final last summer, cut down on her unforced errors just enough to reel off the next three games, quelling Muguruza’s momentum.
"I felt the entire match I was overthinking," she said in her post-match press conference. "There was a moment when I got angry and hit my racquet on the ground. I feel like I released a lot of the thoughts that I had. It just made me go more into instinct-based tennis."
Under pressure as Osaka edged closer to a final set, Muguruza saved two set points on her still-impressive serve, but the world No. 3 would not be denied, and the match was all tied up in little over an hour.
The 23-year-old continued to force the issue early in the decider—engineering a break point that Muguruza gamely saved at the net—but some loose play swung the momentum back towards the Spaniard, who saved another break point with some clutch serving to move within a game of victory.
A backhand miss from Osaka yielded a pair of match points for Muguruza, but the former Melbourne champion found a miraculous final gear from there, breaking Muguruza as she served for the match. Osaka then eliminated her unforced errors entirely through the final four games to race into the quarterfinals.
Awaiting her there is a rematch of a 2019 Australian Open thriller with Hsieh Su-Wei. Hsieh advanced into her first Grand Slam singles quarterfinal earlier in the afternoon in straight sets over Marketa Vondrousova.
The news elicited a deep sigh from Osaka, who has played to three sets in three of her four matches with Hsieh, including their Melbourne Park clash two years ago. Hsieh led Osaka by a set and 4-1 before losing 12 of the final 14 games.
"I'm not really looking forward to it," Osaka said. "She's going to be really tough; every time I play her is three sets and really long. It's actually fun when I'm not really angry.
"She's one of those players that, for me, if it was a video game, I would want to select her character just to play as her," she explained after the match. "Because my mind can't fathom the choices she makes when she's on the court. It's so fun to watch. It's not fun to play, but it's really fun to watch."