MELBOURNE, Australia — In a riveting Australian Open women’s final on Saturday, Petra Kvitova tried unsuccessfully to shake Naomi Osaka. Kvitova earned five break points in the first set, which she could not convert, and saved three championship points in the second, which she ultimately was unable to capitalize on.
Osaka refused to fade away. Later, as the Rod Laver Arena crowd celebrated Osaka’s 7-6 (2), 5-7, 6-4 victory, Kvitova looked around to congratulate her opponent — and couldn’t find her anywhere.
“Well done, Naomi,” Kvitova said, craning her neck to look behind her. “Where are you?”
Every little thing Osaka does on the court inexorably draws the eye to her, but take the racket out of her hand and she visibly shrinks from the spotlight. Born in Japan and raised in the United States by a Japanese mother and a Haitian father, she was asked in an interview on Australian television if she was ready to become the face of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
“Yikes,” she said, wincing. “Hopefully for their sake they don’t do that.”
How can they not?
Osaka came into this tournament last year ranked No. 72. When the new world rankings come out on Monday, Osaka, 21, the reigning United States Open champion, will become the first singles player, male or female, from Japan to reach No. 1. The retired Chinese star Li Na might as well have been passing a torch when she presented Osaka with the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup in the on-court trophy presentation.
Li, a two-time major winner, rose to No. 2, behind Serena Williams, shortly after winning the 2014 Australian Open. For five years, no singles player from Asia had climbed higher.
Osaka, the first woman since Jennifer Capriati in 2001 to win her first two major titles back to back, does not appear to be going anywhere but forward.
When Osaka defeated Williams in the U.S. Open final in September, she was the eighth different woman since the 2017 Australian Open to win a Grand Slam title. By consolidating her victory in New York with her performance in Melbourne, Osaka demonstrated that she has staying power.
Osaka’s victory over Williams, in retrospect, seems to have represented a coronation of sorts, one queen ceding the throne to her successor. That idea got lost in that final’s chaotic finish, when the chair umpire, Carlos Ramos, warned Williams about a coaching infraction, setting off a chain of events that thrust Williams into the spotlight and Osaka into the shadows.
“Definitely she is a great one,” Kvitova, a two-time Wimbledon champion, said of Osaka. “We’ll see what the future will bring. But for sure she has probably everything that has to be there to play her best tennis.”
Kvitova, 28, was the same age that Osaka is now in 2011 when she won her first Wimbledon title. It took her three years to return to a Grand Slam final, and she took the title again at Wimbledon in 2014.
“I probably wasn’t really ready to win it, to be honest,” said Kvitova, who spoke of struggling to adjust to increased expectations — and not just from the public.
“You’re thinking like you have to win every single match because you just won a Grand Slam,” she said, adding, “I put a bit more pressure than I should.”
Osaka also expects a lot of herself. It is what drove her in the past year to create more spin on her forehand, which produced eight winners in the deciding set on Saturday. She has also worked on the placement, and not just the pace, of her serve, also to great effect; she recorded nine aces in the final to finish the tournament with 59, which was 22 more than the next-highest woman.
And against Kvitova, Osaka was able to corral her emotions after the second set got away from her, which hasn’t always been her strong suit. She lost in the semifinals of a tuneup event in Brisbane after she worked herself into a fury because she felt it was a match that no major champion should lose.
Rain was in the air in Melbourne Park — a few drops fell late in the third set, prompting the roof to be closed for the end of the match. But Osaka can create her own weather system, and the storm clouds were gathering between her ears in the second set as Kvitova became more aggressive with her groundstrokes and pushed Osaka deeper behind the baseline.
As the second set wore on, Osaka rubbed her temples, glowered at her racket and, at one point, turned her back on Kvitova and took deep breaths, trying to gather herself. After losing the last four games, Osaka took a bathroom break to regroup before the deciding set, and left the court in tears.
While she was gone, Osaka said, she reminded herself that Kvitova was an excellent player. She told herself she had to expect a hard-fought battle, especially after the long and winding path Kvitova had traveled to get to the final, her first since she sustained a career-threatening injury while fighting off a knife-wielding burglar in her Czech Republic apartment in late 2016.
“I can’t really act entitled,” Osaka said. “To be playing against one of the best players in the world, to lose a set, suddenly think that I’m so much better than her, that isn’t a possibility.”
Osaka’s pep talk to herself was effective. In the third game of the third set, she broke Kvitova. “I literally just tried to turn off my feelings,” Osaka said.
She has won 60 consecutive matches in which she has taken the first set, but don’t ask her to explain how she does it. Talking is not one of her talents, Osaka said. “Like in my day-to-day I might speak like 10 sentences,” she said. Continue reading
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