Melbourne | Osaka quietly sees off Kvitova for second major
Naomi Osaka, the quiet champion, made it two majors in a row when she overcame Petra Kvitova in the final of the Australian Open.
The Japanese prefers flying under the radar but on Saturday night in a packed Rod Laver Arena at Melbourne Park she made history under the glaring spotlights.
Hello, sorry, public speaking isn’t really my strong suit so I just hope we can get through this Naomi Osaka
The day before she had refused to speak to the media in the traditional press conference ahead of the final, preferring to keep her focus.
She may be shy and introverted, but she is also a tennis sensation and a welcome personality in the women’s game.
Last September Osaka won the US Open under controversial circumstances when her opponent Serena Williams had a meltdown, after which many suggested the Japanese was simply lucky.
That is not the case this time round for Osaka won the title fair and square, and there can be no doubt as to her skill set or that she thoroughly deserved to do so.
Kvitova’s story in reaching the final is all the more remarkable following her return from a terrible hand injury sustained during a knife attack in her home in December 2016.
The two-time Wimbledon champion believes overcoming the career-threatening injury makes her return to top form even more special.
“It’s a Grand Slam. You do have your nerves there, and doesn’t matter what happened [in the past],” she said.
“You are just a bit more like stressed than normally you are when you are at home and, I don’t know, practicing and whatever. That’s how it is.
The Czech took the unusual route of not practicing between matches at the Australian Open, but was feeling fresh and ready to battle for the World No 1 ranking.
“I’m really trying to be relaxed in the days off. I’m not hitting on the days off, either,” Kvitova added, smiling.
“I’m playing only matches, so I think it’s helping me, as well, to kind of have mind a little bit more free.
“I needed those days off after Sydney, as well, that I really need to recovery and have a kind of more energy for the matches. In that routine, we stayed with. That’s I think is really helping me a bit.”
The final turned into a see-saw battle in which Osaka overcame her nerves, some tears and a spirited challenge from the double Wimbledon champion to claim the Australian Open title with a 7-6(2) 5-7 6-4 win on Saturday night.
In so doing Osaka became the first Asian player to claim the World No 1 spot, but it could so easily have gone the other way.
Kvitova saved four match points, showing the same resilience she needed to return to the top level of tennis after the lengthy surgery to repair her racket hand, but her fightback fell just short.
Osaka shed tears after losing the second set from a 5-3 lead but returned to court after a washroom break, calmer and more composed.
She broke Kvitova in the third game of the final set and converted her fifth match point to end a superb final in 2 hours and 27 minutes, receiving the acclaim of the crowd in stark contrast to her last Grand Slam success.
While she had heard only boos from an angry and frustrated crowd after defeating home favourite Serena Williams in an ill-tempered US Open final, on Saturday she received a proper coronation from an approving audience at the Rod Laver Arena.
It was hard to ignore the contrast with the scenes last time round when Osaka was being handed a Grand Slam title to a backdrop of boos from the crowd following Williams’ infamous umpire rant.
Australian newspaper the Herald Sun, embroiled in a row over a Serena Williams cartoon last year after the US Open controversy, said that this time round there was ‘no sulking loser’ to spoil Osaka’s party.
“Hello, sorry, public speaking isn’t really my strong suit so I just hope we can get through this,” Osaka said after receiving the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup from former champion Li Na and a winner’s cheque for £2.23 million.
“Huge congrats to you Petra, I’ve always wanted to play you and you’ve been through so much. You’re really amazing and I’m really honoured to have played you in the final of a Grand Slam.”
The 21-year-old Osaka became the youngest women’s World No 1 since Dane Caroline Wozniacki, who was 20 when she topped the rankings in 2010.
The No 4 seed, one of the cleanest strikers of the ball in women’s tennis, also became the first player since Jennifer Capriati in 2001 to win the next Grand Slam after her maiden major title.
For Kvitova, simply being in a Grand Slam final was a triumph of sorts.
“It’s crazy, I can’t believe I just played a final of a Grand Slam again. It’s been a while in a final for me,” said an emotional Kvitova.
“But mostly thank you [to my team] for sticking with me even [if] we didn’t know if I would be able to hold this racket again.”
Osaka took the first set on a tiebreak after both players had exhibited their entire array of shots in a high-quality opening to the match of enthralling play.
Kvitova’s serve, which looked impregnable during the early games of the opening set, suffered a dip as Osaka took up unconventional receiving positions, forcing the Czech to make adjustments.
The Japanese had won 59 straight matches after taking the first set before Saturday’s final, and showed why as her serves grew bigger and the winners flowed from her racket in the second.
After an early trade of service breaks in the second set, the Czech’s confidence appeared shaken and she was broken to love before Osaka held her serve to win a fourth straight game.
The 28-year-old Czech, who had lost just 7 out of 33 career finals before Saturday, fought back with booming serves to save three match points and hold for 4-5, before breaking Osaka to draw level.
A teary-eyed Osaka could not stop Kvitova’s fightback as the Czech won 4 straight games to win the set after the Japanese served up her fourth double fault.
A break in the third game of the decider, however, proved enough for Osaka, who fell to her knees as Kvitova’s forehand went wide to hand her the title.
Just a year ago, the 21-year-old was World No 72 but she has gone on to win back-to-back Grand Slams to become the world’s best player.
It has been a remarkable rise.
“I mean, to me, it doesn’t [feel like a quick rise],” she said following her Australian Open title win. “I guess looking from the outside, from your guys’ view, it does.
“For me, every practice and every match that I’ve played, it feels like the year is short and long at the same time.
“But I’m aware of all the work that I put in. I know all the sacrifices that every player does to stay at this level.”
When quizzed on how she manages to stay so cool in the face of adversity, she revealed she has the ability to ‘turn her feelings off’ and become a ‘robot’.
“Like, you know how some people get worked up about things? That’s a very human thing to do,” she added.
“Sometimes, I don’t know, like I feel like I don’t want to waste my energy doing stuff like that.
“I think about this on the court, too. Like in the third set of my match today, I literally just tried to turn off all my feelings. So that’s why I wasn’t yelling as much in the third set.
“I’m not sure if that makes me grown up. I don’t think so.”
So how does it feel to turn one’s feelings off?
“I just felt kind of hollow, like I was a robot sort of,” she continued. “I was just executing my orders.
“I don’t know. Like, I just did what I’ve been practising my whole life in a way. I didn’t waste any energy reacting too much.
“But then when it got towards the end, then I started, like, realising how big the situation was, so then I think I started, like, yelling c’mon again.’
Kvitova was full of plaudits for the new Australian Open champion but doesn’t believe it is a forgone conclusion that she will dominate the sport.
“Who knows. I think women’s tennis is very open,” said the Czech, who will rise to World No 2 when the latest WTA rankings are released on Monday.
“You really never know who going to be there. But definitely she’s playing great game. She’s really big player, as she showed in the results, winning US Open and Australian Open, it’s amazing achievement.”
On what has been a wonderful comeback, she added: “It’s hurting a lot today. I wanted to win and have the trophy.
“But I think I already won two years ago. So for me, it’s amazing. I think I still don’t really realise that I played the final.
“I think, I mean, I’ve been through many, many things, not really great ones. As I said on the court, I didn’t know if I going to hold the racket again. I’m holding it, so that’s good.
“Still few things which I can improve, and we’ll do it. So it’s not the end. Yeah, I be back for sure.”
Meanwhile Japan rejoiced, with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe leading the tributes following Osaka’s victory in Melbourne.
“The thrill of a hard-fought victory! Congratulations on winning the Australian Open, Naomi Osaka,” Abe wrote on his official Twitter page.
“I am very proud of the emergence of a new queen. I look forward to your continued accomplishments.”
Her compatriot Kei Nishikori, who had to withdraw during his Australian Open quarter-final with Novak Djokovic through injury, also took to Twitter, congratulating Osaka with a series of thumbs-up, trophy and Japanese flag emojis.
Local television channels showed people in Tokyo gathering to snatch a copy of a special edition of the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper detailing Osaka’s victory.
Osaka, whose father is Haitian and mother is Japanese, has helped to break new ground in Japan, challenging the country’s traditional self-image as a racially homogenous country.
The top ranking was on the line in a second straight Australian Open women’s final.
Yet last year’s combatants, Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep, entered the match having each lost their only two previous Grand Slam finals.
Neither Osaka nor Kvitova, conversely, had ever lost a major final.
The other difference was the nature of the play, with the 2018 decider pitting two counter-punchers against one another.
This year’s finale was all about aggressive, first-strike tennis.
It ended with the first Japanese tennis player, man or woman, becoming the World No 1, and the first Japanese to win the Australian Open, Asia-Pacific’s Grand Slam.
For the land of the rising sun, that is a very big deal, even if the quiet champion has taken it all in her stride.