The young 21-year-old clinched her second consecutive Grand Slam championship to become the new world No 1 after a thrilling 7-6 (7-2), 5-7. 6-4 victory over Kvitova
[Our thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.]
Four months after the finest moment of her career was overshadowed by what was happening on the other side of the net, Naomi Osaka won her second successive Grand Slam title here at the Australian Open on Saturday – and this time there could be no doubting who was the star of the show.
Amidst the chaos surrounding Serena Williams’ run-in with the umpire in last year’s US Open final it had been easy to forget that Osaka had become Japan’s first Grand Slam singles champion. After beating Petra Kvitova 7-6 (7-2), 5-7, 6-4 in the final here, however, Osaka firmly established herself as the best player on the planet.
Osaka’s second Grand Slam final had plenty of drama, too, but without the histrionics that had marred her big day in New York last September. Kvitova saved three match points in the second set and another in the third before Osaka’s belligerent ball-striking finally ended her opponent’s resistance after two hours and 27 minutes.
In Monday’s updated world ranking list Osaka will become the first Asian of either sex to top the world singles rankings. The 21-year-old Japanese will be the youngest No 1 since 20-year-old Caroline Wozniacki climbed the summit in 2010 and is the first woman since Jennifer Capriati in 2001 to follow up her maiden Grand Slam title by winning another in the next tournament.
It has been a remarkable rise for Osaka, who was ranked No 72 in the world at this tournament last year and did not win her first title until last March. However, her excellent ball-striking and big-match temperament had always marked her out as a potential future champion.
Around the world Kvitova might have been the more popular winner given her comeback following the horrific knife attack on her just over two years ago which left her wondering whether she would ever play again. The 28-year-old Czech had played some of her best tennis to reach her first Grand Slam final since winning the second of her two Wimbledon titles in 2014.
Here at the tournament which proudly calls itself the “Grand Slam of Asia/Pacific” there was no doubt who had the backing of the crowd. Just as they used to get behind China’s Li Na, who presented the trophy to Osaka, the Melbourne public have quickly taken to Osaka, who was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and Haitian father but has lived most of her life in Florida.
After the intense heat of the previous days, the conditions were almost perfect in Rod Laver Arena when the two women walked out just after 7.30pm.
Both women are formidable big hitters and although Kvitova mixed things up with some unexpected drop shots the match quickly developed into a baseline battle. Osaka in particular has hit the ball exceptionally well throughout this tournament. She has hit more aces (59) and more winners (259) than any other player in the women’s singles here.
The first set was tight throughout. Osaka saved two break points in the fifth game and two more in the seventh and Kvitova saved one in the sixth, but as the set wore on it was the Japanese who set the pace. At 5-6 Kvitova roared in relief as much as celebration when she saved two set points, but Osaka dominated the ensuing tie-break.
Osaka made the first mini-break with a thumping backhand return winner on the second point, hit an ace to go 3-1 up and won the tie-break 7-2 after Kvitova missed two backhands in a row. It was the first set Kvitova had dropped in the tournament.
Although Osaka had gone into this match having won 59 matches in a succession when she had won the opening set, there was no way that Kvitova was going to be intimidated by a simple statistic.
The Czech launched an immediate fightback at the start of the second set, breaking for the first time in the second game with a big forehand winner, only for Osaka to win the next four games to take a 4-2 lead.
Having hit the ball consistently in the first set, Kvitova suddenly lost her timing midway through the second, which seemed to revive Osaka’s spirits. When Kvitova served at 3-5 and went 0-40 down it seemed that her number was up, but the Czech dug deep, saving three match points thanks to a combination of bold hitting and big serving.
Against all expectations, Osaka was broken for the first time in the next game when she served for the match at 5-4. A double fault gave Kvitova two break points and she needed only one of them as Osaka missed a forehand.
Worse was to follow for the Japanese. Kvitova saved a break point in holding serve to go 6-5 up, after which Osaka dropped her serve to love to hand her opponent the set by making a hash of four points in a row, the last of which was a double fault.
By the time Kvitova had held to love in the first game of the deciding set and won the first point of the following game the Czech had won 23 of the last 27 points, only for the momentum to swing back in Osaka’s favour as she won three games in a row to lead 3-1.
Serving at 2-4, Kvitova again held serve from 0-40. The Czech saved a fourth match point when Osaka went 40-0 up at 5-4, but the Japanese was not to be denied as a service winner gave her victory.
Kvitova would have risen to No 1 in the rankings if she had won the title here but will instead climb back to No 2, having last occupied that position four years ago. That will be small consolation for the defeat, but she will appreciate better than anybody that simply getting to the final here was a memorable achievement in itself.