Melbourne | Osaka makes second major final
Naomi Osaka advanced to her first Australian Open final after holding her nerve to win a thrilling three-set contest over Karolina Pliskova, 6-2 4-6 6-4.
It was a match of the highest quality, studded with electrifying winners.
For me this is the most important tournament. There’s only four of them a year, so of course I want to do the best that I can here Naomi Osaka
“I kind of expected [a fightback from Pliskova], because I’d played her so many times and honestly she beat me more than I beat her,” said Osaka, who lost to the Czech in their last meeting in the Tokyo final in September 2018.
“So I was expecting a really hard battle, and I just told myself to regroup in the third set and try as hard as I can, and I managed to win.”
The two women combined for 76 winners against 51 errors under the Rod Laver Arena roof on a scorching summer day in Melbourne.
Osaka, the reigning US Open champion, has built a 13-match winning streak at Grand Slam tournaments and will now meet Petra Kvitova for a shot at a second straight major title.
The last player to win back-to-back Grand Slam trophies was Serena Williams in 2015.
Kvitova earlier on Thursday subdued surprise semi-finalist Danielle Collins, 7-6(2) 6-0.
Pliskova, since reaching the 2016 US Open final, has lost her last two Grand Slam semi-finals, the first being at Roland Garros in 2017, in three tight sets.
“I’m not upset with myself, just that I lost. There is nothing what I would do differently,” she said.
“I believe she played unbelievable match. To be honest, maybe her best in the life. I don’t think she can repeat match like this. Amount of winners what she had, she just had very little mistakes.
“I don’t think I did actually something wrong. I had some chances, of course I had. The chances, they were not in my hands at all. There was not much what I could do.”
Osaka showed in the very first game how dangerous she would be when she brought up a break point, but she couldn’t convert it.
On her next attempt, she fired back-to-back winners to break for 2-1.
It was a lead she would not relinquish, and the first example of Osaka’s ability to land consecutive knockout blows to shut Pliskova out.
In the seventh game, back-to-back winners helped her to break point, before a rattled Pliskova double faulted to fall behind 5-2.
Osaka then served out the first set with back-to-back aces, taking her winners tally for the set to 16, compared with Pliskova’s 4.
When Osaka broke in the opening game of the second, the match appeared to be heading for a speedy conclusion but Pliskova, who is playing some of the best tennis of her life, and was riding a 10-match winning streak thanks to her title in Brisbane, broke back immediately.
Then, trailing 0-40 in the next game, the Czech hauled herself out of trouble and completed a gritty hold.
It was a clear confidence booster and Pliskova didn’t face another break point on serve for the remainder of the set.
Osaka continued to blaze away under the roof, striking winners seemingly at will and eliciting both gasps and appreciative applause from the crowd.
She had boosted her tally of winners to a staggering 40 by the end of the second set, but she was becoming somewhat over-zealous in her shot-making.
Two wild errors, which handed Pliskova a hold for 5-4, were followed by a squeal and a fling of the racket from the Japanese No 1.
In the next game, two more unforced errors from Osaka helped Pliskova break to love, and she snatched the second set.
Pliskova won her third straight game when she held to open the deciding set, and accrued three break points in the next game, threatening to wrest control of a match that had, for most of the day, seemed very much out of her control.
Yet Osaka returned to her devastating ways, striking two bold winners to erase the first two and surviving the third.
When she held for 1-1, she clutched at her visor in relief, but she had noticeably steadied.
She broke Pliskova to love in the third game, drilled a forehand winner and two aces to hold for 3-1, and two games later, stretched her lead to 4-2 with a hold at love, assisted by another two winners.
Pliskova produced one last surge, closing the gap from 4-3, 40-15 to deuce and then earning a break point.
The energy in the stadium lifted, sensing a momentum swing, yet Osaka erased that with an ace and held for 5-3.
Pliskova forced the 21-year-old to serve for the match, and Osaka was up to the task.
From 30-30, she closed it out as a champion does, slotting a winner to reach match point and sealing victory with a resounding ace.
“I guess [I’ve gained] experience playing matches like this,” Osaka reflected.
“To be honest, I was so scared serving second serves [laughter]. I was like, oh my god, please! Somehow I made it, so I guess that’s experience.”
Reaching the final in consecutive Grand Slams after winning the US Open last year seems a ‘bit unreal’ for the 21-year-old, who said her hard work in the off-season was bearing fruit.
“At the same time, I realise the work that I put in during the off-season,” she told reporters after her victory.
“Every match that I played, I tried my best. It just felt like it was a continuous effort.
“It’s sort of the reality I am in right now, so I can only keep going forward from here.”
Having cleared the hurdle of winning her first Grand Slam title in New York last year, Osaka said her experience and confidence was helping her break new ground.
“I think for me it’s experience. I’ve been in the third round. I was stuck there for two years,” she said.
“As soon as I could break away from that, now I’m here again, I think it’s just experience and a confidence issue for me.
“I would love to say I’m that good, but literally I’m playing the best players in the world, and I’ve been playing three sets most of the time. It’s more like a battle of will at this point.”
Osaka said playing at the Grand Slams was something she dreamt of as a child and performing her best at this stage is the highest motivation.
“You guys know that I love Grand Slams,” she said. “This is, like, a place where I think it’s worth all the training.
“When you’re little, you watch the Grand Slams, you watch all the players play, like, the legendary matches here.
“For me this is the most important tournament. There’s only four of them a year, so of course I want to do the best that I can here.”
Osaka’s title clash against double Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova will also decide the next World No 1 in women’s tennis, with the winner replacing Romanian Simona Halep, who has held the spot for 48 consecutive weeks.
“Of course that’s a very big deal for me. It’s one of the biggest goals that I had I guess playing the quarters, then hearing that it’s possible,” said Osaka, who would become the first Japanese player to hold the No 1 ranking if she wins on Saturday.
“My main goal is winning this tournament. I think the ranking comes after that. I tend to do better if I focus on one goal.”
Personable as ever, Osaka gave an entertaining post-match interview where she addressed her Japanese fans and said she’d be going straight to sleep.
She bemoaned the closing of the roof over the Rod Laver Arena where temperatures reached around 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).
“To be honest, I like the heat so I was kind of sad about that [the roof being closed],” Osaka said.
“No, but they had the roof open and I was like, ‘my time to shine,’ you know?” Osaka said with a giggle.
Osaka gave a message to her Japanese fans watching at home and those who had made the trip out to Melbourne.
“I just said thank you for cheering and I’ll try my best in my next match,” she afterwards said in English.
Osaka has also made headlines outside of the tournament this week when one of her sponsors, noodle-makers Nissin, apologised for ‘white-washing’ her cartoon image in an advert.
The Japanese company recently launched its ‘Hungry to win’ campaign but Baye McNeil, the author of the Black Eye column in the Japan Times, said that even though Osaka features, ‘there was no woman of colour to speak of in the commercial’.
Nissin has since apologised and seems to have pulled the video from YouTube.
“There is no intention of whitewashing,” a spokesperson told The New York Times in an email. “We accept that we are not sensitive enough and will pay more attention to diversity issue in the future.”
The spokesperson also apologised for ‘the confusion and discomfort’.