Australian Open 2019: Naomi Osaka edges Kvitova in thriller to win second Major and No1 ranking
Naomi Osaka beats Petra Kvitova to win the Australian Open title and secure the world number one ranking
When this year’s Australian Open got under way two weeks ago, the women’s draw was packed with Major champions, dating from 1999, Serena Williams, to the four current champions and top four seeds, Simona Halep, Caroline Wozniacki, Angelique Kerber and Naomi Osaka.
And every active former No1 was also in the draw, with the top spot up for grabs by any of 11 contenders.
Altogether, nine No1s and 13 Major champions—five of them Australian Open champions—took to court. Stir into the mix some other high-ranked recent winners—the likes of WTA Finals champion Elina Svitolina, and Aryna Sabalenka, up from 73 a year ago to No11 via three titles from five finals—and the challenges were many and varied.
But one by one, all the former Australian champions were beaten, including seven-time titlist Williams, plus three more Australian finalists, Halep, Venus Williams and Dominika Cibulkova.
Indeed none of the former No1s in the draw would contest the 2019 title nor the No1 ranking. This year’s titlist would also debut at the top of the ranks.
Not that the last two women standing were unfamiliar to tennis fans. Far from it: two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova and reigning US Open champion Osaka were not only Major winners, but among the most popular players in the draw, with memorable storylines.
The story of Czech Kvitova, who won Wimbledon at the age of 21 back in 2011, and won it again in 2014, but then endured what looked like a career-ending attack in her own home at the end of 2016, is a familiar one to tennis fans.
Then the story of her sunny return six months later, after extensive surgery to her playing left hand, was more heart-warming and memorable than anything that had gone before. No wonder she admitted: “I see life a little bit from a different angle… Sometimes I just stand outside and see the sun and say, ‘It’s beautiful.’”
That year of her return, she would win on the grass of Birmingham, make the quarters of the US Open, and the semis of Beijing. Last year, she led the tour with five titles, and this year, she started with a bang, winning the Sydney title. Seeded No8, she stormed through the draw, dropping not a set, facing only one tie-break, and playing first strike tennis that thrilled the heart.
Then there was Osaka, still only 21, but with the big game and composure of a much older player, who chose the biggest possible stages to launch her attack on women’s tennis. She won Indian Wells and the US Open to rise from 72 this time last year to No4 this month.
With charm and wit to spare, her fire was dampened in New York just when it should have lit up her sport. The story of Serena Williams’ loss—of match and more—stole the headlines.
But in her first Major since, she was making up for it by beating three seeds—including Svitolina and No7 seed Karolina Pliskova—en route to another Major final. Along the way, she had notched up more aces, 50, and more winners, 226, than any other woman—truly throwing down the gauntlet at Kvitova’s big-time tennis.
But this final, above all, would be a battle of firsts.
· Both women played in their first Australian final, targeted their first Melbourne title
· Both women could be No1 for the first time
· Osaka would be first Japanese player, man or woman, to be No1
· Kvitova targeted her first hard-court Major
· Osaka could become the youngest No1 in nine years, Kvitova the oldest to debut at No1 in the Open era
And one final ‘first’: for all their achievements on a tennis court, remarkably, this was their first meeting—and what a time to do it.
Osaka opened with a double fault—nerves, surely—but got the opening hold. Then each woman threw in an impressive love hold: in the blink of an eye, it was 2-2.
The Czech went after a couple of second serves in the fifth, taking full backhand swings for winners, and both earned her a break chance. But the Osaka nerves and serves were up to the test. Three deuces later and it was a hold and a quiet fist clench.
Osaka returned the favour, taking control once rallies extended to a few shots. A break point back, but Kvitova deployed her killer leftie swinging serve and, for good measure, threw in a superb drop-shot winner to hold, 3-3.
And all at once, a couple of first-strike returns of serve from Kvitova and a double fault from Osaka, made it 0-40. However, some varied serving from the Japanese, and over-eager strikes from the Czech, swept those break chances away, and the partisan crowd cheered their adopted daughter.
Kvitova was unfazed, a swift hold, but Osaka was the coolest woman in the building, also a love hold. The Czech continued to be near flawless on serve, now backed by a forehand winner, now by two outstanding drop-shot winners.
Osaka’s easy power, with serves and forehands to the lines, was halted briefly in the 10th game, during the first extended rally of 18 shots. Kvitova edged it with one more drop shot winner, helped by a net nick, yet Osaka remained oh-so-calm, and served it out, 6-5.
It meant that Kvitova’s serve carried the weight of her resistance, and with a couple of missed first deliveries, the weight grew heavier. Sure enough, she faced set point, saved it with a huge forehand winner, but was pressed wide again, and another forced error brought up a second set point. Again, the Czech resisted with a one-two strike to take it to a tie-break.
Osaka showed all her aggressive talent to open with a backhand return-of-serve winner, the first advantage. Time after time, Osaka was onto the ball for the big strike, and she changed ends, 5-1, courtesy of a forehand pass. A backhand forced wide from the Czech, and Osaka had the set, 7-6(2), after a compelling 50 minutes.
The second set began with some gripping moments, too. Kvitova had to hold to 30, but then her forehand kicked in to work a break point. Osaka saved it, but not a second, as she saw a forehand blast past for the break, 2-0.
The Czech had to dig deep to try and avoid the immediate strike back, a long game, four deuces, and on the second break point, Kvitova nicked the net: Osaka was back on serve. Not only that, she followed a swift hold with a break to love. She stepped inside the baseline, took the ball early, took time away from Kvitova. It was dazzling ball striking, and firmly earned the momentum, 4-2.
Kvitova’s serve was simply not earning her free points any more: only 50 percent finding the mark, and only half of those winning the point.
Osaka held confidently for 5-3, and took hold of the Kvitova return to rip a winner, and then another at Kvitova’s feet: three match points. But the Wimbledon champion answered with five big serves to hold. And she kept on holding, as nerves finally took a hold on Osaka.
Kvitova broke, 5-5, and that was just the start: She resisted another break point to move ahead for the first time in the set, 6-5. The tension was palpable, helped by two net cords against Osaka, and a double fault conceded the break, game, and set, 7-5.
Kvitova opened the decider with a love hold, but at last Osaka righted the ship to get the board working on her side again, 1-1. And she turned things back in her favour to convert a break point with a backhand winner. It was the play of a remarkably focused, assured young woman, and she consolidated with an easy hold, 3-1.
That composure came good again as she fended off break point, 4-2, and Osaka turned the screw on the Kvitova serve. Still stepping inside the baseline to receive, she drew errors, got three more break chances, only for the Czech to reel off five straight points and the hold—again.
But could she break again, as she had in the previous set? It was a resounding no, as Osaka held to love. Kvitova played her part, a hold for 4-5, but this time, the Japanese did not waver: She served out the victory, after a gripping two and a half hours, 6-4, and buried her face in her hands.
The young star, the first Japanese player ever to claim the No1 ranking, was perhaps the most restrained Major champion ever recorded. She smiled, waved, but walked calmly to embrace the downcast Kvitova.
Perhaps it was because she played the courageous Czech, a woman she clearly admired so much. Shy, uncertain of what to say, Osaka was clear on one thing:
“Huge congratulations to Petra: I’ve always wanted to play you, you’ve been through so much—I wouldn’t have wanted this to be our first match. You are amazing and I am honoured to have played you in a Grand Slam final.”
It was, of course, a hugely emotional moment for Kvitova, too, coming so close to winning a third Major, and her first since the trauma she suffered two years ago. And it reduced her to tears as she thanked her team and supporters:
“Thank you for sticking with me even though we didn’t know if I was able to hold the racket again.”
She will return to No2, which she last held in 2015 before slipping to 29 in the year that followed the stabbing attack. And that is something to celebrate.
But for now, tennis can celebrate the rise and rise of Osaka—to the very top.