Naomi Osaka has been playing some exceptional tennis at this year’s Australian Open but it is hard to ignore that a year ago, she was ranked 72nd in a world and looked at as just a bright, upcoming talent.
Now, she’s one more win away from becoming the world no 1. Her rise in the last year has been meteoric but it hasn’t fazed her in the least. Rather, it seems to have emboldened her to go out there and play her own brand of tennis; a brand that would have clearly done a Serena proud.
her semifinal opponent, Karolina Pliskova had been playing consistently high-quality tennis for a while now and wasn’t going to give up without a fight. But Osaka simply blew her away by firing winners from all parts of the court to win 6-2, 4-6, 6-4.
When the dust finally settled, Osaka had pummeled 56 winners as against just 30 unforced errors. It was at times, an awe-inspiring show especially against a player whose power game seems tailor-made for faster surfaces.
The winners that flowed from Osaka’s racquet were only one part of the winning equation. The other was her serve. She sent down 15 aces during the match and many of them in clutch situations, forcing Pliskova to always remain on the back foot.
The first set was pretty much a one-woman show. Pliskova seemed to be moving around court slowly but maybe, that was only because Osaka was playing at such a high level. The 21-year-old Japanese star hit 16 winners to Pliskova’s 4 and committed just 9 unforced errors to her opponents 8. She was making things happen and forcing her Czech opponent into a reactive state.
In the second set, Pliskova raised her level. She cut down the unforced errors, got more returns in and stayed with Osaka for a lot longer in the points. The slip-up finally came at 5-4.
Osaka finally succumbed to the scoreboard pressure, had a bad service game and despite playing pretty well throughout the set, she was going to have to play the decider. For the first time in the match, she seemed to stutter.
STAT CHECK: Pliskova Set 1 vs. Set 2.
Set 1: 50%
Set 2: 82%
Set 1: 4
Set 2: 10
Set 1: 8
Set 2: 3
As the match moved into the third set, the momentum had suddenly shifted to Pliskova. The Czech had won the second against the run of play but it had clearly given her a huge confidence boost. She took the first game easily, holding Osaka at 30.
Then came the service game that probably decided the match. Pliskova upped her return game and earned three break-points in Osaka’s first service game of the set. But the fearlessness of the Japanese and the sheer audacity of it all saved the day. Pliskova did nothing wrong on the breakpoints but Osaka went for the lines (including a wonderful down-the-line backhand), she went for the kill without fearing the outcome.
After surviving intense pressure in her service game, she then came out and broke Pliskova at love. And that was that.
Osaka never looked back after that. She held her serve — with a few more aces and then finally sealed the match with her 15th ace. In doing so, she has become the first woman to follow up her first major title by reaching the final at the very next Slam since Jennifer Capriati in the 2001 French Open.
The Japanese is also the youngest player to reach back-to-back Grand Slam finals since Ana Ivanovic (who was 20) in 2008.
Coming into a Grand Slam, Osaka has never had to deal with the same level of expectations but she’s handled them with aplomb so far.
Petra Kvitova might throw up a very different challenge in the final but one can be pretty sure about the kind of tennis Osaka is going to come out playing.
Either which way, we are in for a superb final. Both players are undefeated in Grand Slam finals. The runner-up will be the world number two. Winner will be the new world number one. It, honestly, doesn’t get better.
Osaka: 15 aces, 3 DFs, 58% 1st serves in, 81% 1st serve points won, 41% 2nd serve points won, 68% returns in, 4 of 11 break points won, 6 of 8 break points saved, 56 winners, 30 unforced errors.
Pliskova: 3 aces, 4 DFs, 72% 1st serves in, 72% 1st serve points won, 32% 2nd serve points won, 67% returns in, 2 of 8 break points won, 7 of 11 break points saved, 20 winners, 21 unforced errors.