Naomi Osaka had three championship points in the second set at 3-5 and it looked all over for Petra Kvitova in the women’s singles final of the Australian Open.
The Czech eighth seed had given it her all, breaking early in the second set after dropping the first set but it didn’t look enough as Osaka found the lines with her cracking winners.
But this was Kvitova, the fearless warrior who had fought her way back to tennis after doctors had given her just a 10 per cent chance of returning to competitive tennis when her hand was slashed by a knife-wielding burglar little over two years ago.
She fought her heart out on those points, saving them all while her 21-year-old opponent smashed a ball to the ground in frustration – the first sign that she was rattled. The 28-year-old capitalised on this turmoil and broke Osaka who was serving for the title, held her serve and then broke again to force a decider.
Osaka was dumbfounded and she walked off for a bathroom break covering her face with a towel.
This was a big moment for the Japanese who had won her first Grand Slam at the US open as a 20-year-old, beating Serena Williams in an ill-tempered final. But for someone who had blazed through in that New York cauldron of chaos and controversy against her idol, this was just another tennis match. As she had in that emotionally-draining match, she regrouped mentally and came out all guns firing to win her second straight Major and become the new world no 1.
There are many big numbers associated with Osaka’s stupendous victory in Australia – first Asian player to be world No 1, only the third woman to win back-to-back Slams this decade after Kim Clijsters and Serena Williams, the youngest world no 1 since 2010, the woman to snap the streak of eight-different major champions since 2017.
But the one number that could truly epitomise her trophy run is not these record but those three championship points she squandered.
Why would a failure to convert championship points define her historic title? Because her comeback from the second-set meltdown showed what a complete player Osaka has become. The way she found her focus after a train-wreck of a set was extraordinary given her age and relative inexperience. Her consistency and composure through the last two Grand Slams, as much as the trophies themselves, make the 21-year-old one of the best players today.
A year ago, she was ranked 72 in the world. She won her first career title only at Indian Wells in March 2018, and didn’t win another for almost six months. Her next two career titles came at US Open and Australian Open. Big match player, much?
But if the standard of her first three career titles don’t give you the full picture of her incredible talent, perhaps the list of her vanquished opponents will: Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Karoline Pliskova, Simona Halep, Aryna Sabalenka, Daria Kasatkina, Agnieska Radwanska, Madison Keys.
As in the final, she has outplayed quality opponents in Melbourne. In three of those matches – Hsieh Su-wei, Anastasija Sevastova and Pliskova – she dropped a set and was on the backfoot but found her way out with her calm manner and commanding tennis.
Contrast this with the four tournaments between the US and Australian Open, where she reached two semi-finals, one final (retired in the WTA Finals group stage) but didn’t win a single title. But when the crunch moment arrived in Melbourne, she just found a higher gear, like in the first-set tiebreak, and the decider on Saturday.
On Saturday, both Osaka and Kvitova hit an equal number of winners – 33 – fitting, given how similar their playing styles are when it comes to fiery groundstrokes. But Kvitova committed 39 unforced errors, six more than her opponent which made a huge difference to the final result. Both went for the paint, but Osaka pinned the lines with her rockets while the eighth seed’s lethal forehand was erratic.
Where the Japanese player hunted down her mark with a zen-like calm for majority of the contest, the never-say-die Kvitova faltered.
In the first set, the fourth seed Osaka saved five break points and squandered three before her burst of firepower in the tiebreak. In the second set, she went down 0-2 before fighting back for her championship points. In the third set, she left nothing to chance as she nailed her strokes on serve and return.
In the end, Osaka’s focus triumphed over Kvitova’s fearlessness. But it is the manner in which the young world no 1 re-focused after her teary meltdown is what made her the champion. If she, the two-time Slam winner and world no 1, can fight back so impressively at 21, imagine what she will be capable of in the future.
“Public speaking isn’t really my strong suit,” she said in her winner’s speech. If she carries on like this, it will be something she will have to get used to.