The China Open got its dream final, with Japan’s Naomi Osaka challenging the World No 1, Australian Ashleigh Barty, and winning in 3 thrilling sets, 3-6 6-3 6-2.
I feel like I wasn’t that calm here [at the tournament]. I threw my racket, like, once every match. I really wanted to win here, I felt like I had something to prove Naomi Osaka
Osaka claimed her second consecutive WTA singles title with a come-from-behind victory after the two women to most recently hold the top ranking battled it out for over an hour and 50 minutes of high quality tennis.
The loss will not dent Barty’s sense of destiny one jot since the Aussie so relishes a good fight.
“I enjoy those moments, I enjoy when it’s tight, when your back’s against the wall,” Barty said after her thrilling 3 set win over Kiki Bertens on Saturday. “That really brings out the fun for me.
“Regardless if I was on a plane home today, I probably wouldn’t have stressed any more or less about it.”
Osaka faced defending Beijing champion Caroline Wozniacki in the semi-finals and had way too much firepower.
The World No 4 and 2018 US Open champion hit 30 winners in comparison to Wozniacki’s 13, cruising through to a comfortable straight-sets win, 6-4 6-2, breaking a run of 3 defeats for Osaka against the Dane.
“I just thought that she’s beaten me the last couple times – like even when we practice, she’s beaten me,” Osaka said.
“I didn’t try to put too much pressure on myself.
“I know she’s one of the best movers on tour, so I just expected a lot of long rallies,” Osaka said. “Mostly when I play, it’s instinct.
“I guess I just went down the line on the backhand earlier to get the forehand crosses, that’s probably why it worked out.”
She certainly worked out her game plan against Barty too, and despite dropping serve once to cede the opening set, she was terrific on first serve throughout the encounter, winning 80 percent of those points.
The Japanese saved 3 of the 4 break points she faced overall, and converted 3 of the 5 break points she held in the final 2 sets to notch up the 3-set victory.
“It feels good,” Osaka said, in her post-match press conference. “For me, this was my goal.
“After I lost in the US Open, I pretty much don’t want to say I planned, but I really meditated on it. It just feels like I accomplished what I set out to do.”
“I still felt like the underdog [against Barty],” Osaka added. “Results-wise, she’s had a way better 2019, I think. She’s ranked higher than me. People look at that going into it.”
Following 2 love service holds, Osaka earned the initial opportunity to crack the opener, as she grabbed the first break point of the match.
Barty, however, used a fierce forehand to force a wide error from Osaka and erased the break point, as she slid to a hold for 3-2.
Having fought her way out of that predicament, Barty held 3 break points of her own in the subsequent game after miscues by Osaka, and the Australian clinched the first service break of the match after an Osaka netted backhand.
Barty nearly handed the break right back with a run of wide forehands, but she recovered with pristine aggression in the forecourt, staving off another break point to extend her lead to 5-2.
A stunning array of fearsome forehands and stellar serves put Osaka back on track as she blew through another love service game to reach 5-3.
The two-time Grand Slam champion, though, could not pull Barty back on serve, as the Australian crushed 3 super serves in a row to tee up triple set point.
Barty only needed one chance to finish off the set, sealing it with her second consecutive ace.
With a towel over head at the changeover, Osaka got a pep talk from her father and coach Leonard Francois, who told her to calm down because it wasn’t helping her cause, and she then blasted through her first service game.
“In the first set, honestly all I could think about was how much I wanted to win,” Osaka admitted. “That made me very emotional.
“I think that was pretty obvious. I think you can see that from the outside.
“Basically I was telling myself to keep fighting even though my attitude was really trash – ‘this is a final, I’m really privileged to be here in the first place, so keep fighting!’” Osaka said.
“I feel like I wasn’t that calm here [at the tournament]. I threw my racket, like, once every match. I really wanted to win here, I felt like I had something to prove.”
Just as in the opening frame, Osaka also grabbed the first break point of the second set, which she created with a blistering crosscourt backhand at 2-1.
Once more, though, Barty fended off the Japanese player’s chance, this time with a devilish drop-shot winner, and the World No 1 held on for 2-2.
This time around, though, Osaka found another opportunity, and made it work.
Osaka had started to find her targets with her aggressive service returns on a more consistent basis, and she garnered a break point at 3-2 with one such return off of her backhand side.
She converted that chance for her first break of the match, after a long Barty forehand, to lead 4-2.
Serving for the set at 5-3, Osaka fell behind 15-30, but then used her backhand to hit her way out of trouble, manoeuvring to a set point from that wing.
Barty fired a forehand return wide, and Osaka had levelled the match at one set apiece after exhibiting the pristine power which brought her to two hardcourt Grand Slam titles in the last two years.
“In the second set, I just tried to rationalise everything. Then in the third set, just continue what I was doing in the second,” Osaka said.
She carried her momentum into the decider, starting the set off by breaking Barty in the first game after big hitting led to an error-forcing down-the-line forehand on break point.
Sterling forehands helped Barty save a break point in her next service game, and the Australian held one chance to level the set at 2-2, but she missed it with a forehand error, and Osaka powered her way to a hold for 3-1 from there.
The Japanese player moved on, crunching serves to garner a love hold for 4-2, then earning a break to love to reach 5-2.
Osaka hit a 10-point winning streak before Barty used excellent defence to reach deuce in the final game of the match, but the Japanese pulled through the close game, converting her second match point to clinch the trophy.
“I just really wanted to win here, I felt I had something to prove,” said Osaka in the on-court presentation.
“I just told myself if I stop being so dramatic I could honestly contest it,” Osaka said. “I think that’s what I did in the second and third.
“For me, I just do what I’ve been doing for, like, 21 years, which is play tennis.
“That’s the main thing for me. That’s the thing that I’ve done every day of my life and what gives me most joy.”
She is now up to 3 titles on the season, having started 2019 by winning her second Grand Slam title at the Australian Open, a feat which lifted her to the World No 1 ranking for the first time in her career.
Osaka increases her career total to 5 WTA singles titles, with her three 2019 trophies accompanying her victories at the US Open and Indian Wells last year.
Among the changes after the US Open, the young Japanese brought her father, Leonard Francois, on board as her coach, which has proven successful in a short time but Osaka does not see it as a long-term arrangement.
“He doesn’t like watching my matches. I think it stresses him out because he twitches every time I hit a ball,” she smiled.
The beaten Barty said that her slice shot, a major weapon of the Australian’s, was largely ‘nullified’ because of the cool conditions in the Chinese capital, but the 23-year-old was pleased with her week overall, calling her performance ‘a bloody good effort’.
She added that the ‘sterile’ conditions reduced the variety of shots she was able to deploy.
“I was trying to belt it and I couldn’t crack an egg out there,” said top-ranked Barty, who last month reached the semi-finals of the Wuhan Open in central China.
“Little half-chances that I wasn’t able to grab tonight, but I think all-in-all I think it was a solid performance and I’m just proud of the way we were able to fight and kind of grow through the week,” she told reporters.
“I’m extremely proud, proud that myself, my team, we turn up for every single tournament, regardless of when it is during the year, what the conditions are like,” said Barty.
The Australian, who took a break from tennis 5 years ago and played cricket instead, is relishing more showdowns in the future against Osaka and Andreescu, 2 other major talents.
“I think it’s an exciting opportunity for all three of us,” she said.
A rematch could well be in the offing at the Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen, as Osaka became the 5th player to qualify for the elite year-ending event in the midst of her China Open title run, joining Barty, as well as Karolina Pliskova, Simona Halep, and Bianca Andreescu.
“I was not as calm as I usually am,” Osaka admitted. “I think I threw my racket. I just wanted to win here.”
And win she did.