Saturday, January 26, 2019

Naomi Osaka wins Australian Open in a match for the ages

I suggested on Thursday that the women's final would be a thriller, and I was on to something. Naomi Osaka and Petra Kvitova delivered big strikes, sharp angles and repeated tests of will in the two and a half-hour momentum-shifting battle of big hitters. I made copious notes on the match, but I've decided to leave it to others to perform the point-by-point deconstruction. What stood out more, for me, was the essence of the match, which was--to a great extent--formed by the shifting mentality of the players.

Osaka's winning the first set surprised me. Kvitova began brilliantly, finding her wicked angles and serving like a Wimbledon boss. The fact that Osaka was able to run away with the tiebreak was a hint of what was to come (and a reminder of what had occurred throughout Osaka's Australian Open run). Each player experienced letdowns, and they were predictable letdowns. Osaka became sullen when things didn't go her way; Kvitova had patches of making unforced errors. Both were able to will themselves out of these bad places.

One of the most memorable moments in the championship match occurred when Osaka and Kvitova engaged in a long, exciting rally (not something either player especially likes) at 5-all in the first set. The rally required both players to run to extreme corners outside the court, and the crowd was thrilled. Kvitova won the rally with a bit of net cord help, but Osaka held her serve.

Prior to advancing to the first set tiebreak, Kvitova saved two set points on her own serve. This was a taste of the thrills that were to come later in the match, when the stakes were to become very high indeed.

Kvitova played from behind for almost the entire second set. It didn't look good at all for the Barking Czech, who then proceeded to perform a kind of tennis miracle (seems to be a Czech thing lately). Serving at 3-5, 0-40, Kvitova saved three championship points, held her serve, then broke Osaka. The Czech star then saved a break point on her next serve, and followed that by breaking Osaka at love (Osaka double-faulted on the final point).

With a 7-5 win in the second set, Kvitova looked poised to turn the match around. Kvitova's record in finals is superb, so there was every reason to believe that she was realistically close to holding the trophy. However, Osaka had a record of her own--she had won the last 59 3-set matches in which she had won the first set. The histories of these players added even more tension to the contest, especially when we consider that Osaka and Kviotva had never before competed against one another. And to increase that tension even more--the winner of the final would become number 1 in the world.

Osaka went up 3-1 rather easily. Suddenly, Kvitova was serving at 2-4, 0-40, and--once again--it appeared that all of her chances had disappeared. But she held serve, topping the hold off with an ace. Osaka then held, and Kvitova held for 4-5.

Could the Czech wonder do it again? She had done it over and over. Osaka, however, held at 15, and on her fourth championship point, she became the 2019 Australian Open singles champion.

Throughout the tournament, Osaka had to go three sets on three occasions before she reached the final--against Hsieh Su-Wei, Anastasija Sevastova and Karolina Pliskova. In each of those matches, she figured out how to solve the problem at hand, just as she eventually figured out how to cope with Kvitova's serving (of course, she had some help from Kviotva, herself, whose service game took some dips in the latter part of the match).

Not since Jennifer Capriati's successive wins at the Australian Open and the French Open in 2001 has a player followed a debut major win with a consecutive major win. In addition to being the first player in 18 years to repeat Capriati's feat, Osaka is also the first Asian player to win the Australian Open. And now, she's the first Asian player to be ranked number 1 in the world (Li Na's highest ranking was number 2 in the world, which--so far--is also Kvitova's highest ranking).

Li Na was on hand to present the trophy, and her presence was probably a comfort to her dear friend Petra Kvitova. The crowd was wonderfully receptive of both players, and--at one point, when Kvitova talked about the fact that, after she was attacked, there was thought that she might not ever play again--there was very long applause.

One gets the rather certain feeling that both of these players will be holding more big trophies. Kvitova, despite losing this tournament, appears to be at her peak. As for Osaka--she has more skills to add to her game. Just imagine, when she does add them (as other big hitters such as Kvitova and Maria Sharapova have done), what a huge impact she'll have on the tour.


jwr said...

For me, the most fascinating part of the match was watching the cat-and-mouse between Petra's signature--the wide, biting serve to the ad court--and Osaka's backhand. Osaka spent the entirety of the first set cheating over, literally an inch at a time. When she finally connected with one, on the second point of the tie-break, I felt like it took Kvitova until 3-5, 0-40 in the second set to clear her head. And, when she did, Osaka spent four games looking as though her previously indestructible psyche had been shipped off to Mars. That they both showed such resilience, time and again, under the most trying circumstances, was in a way even more impressive than the shot-making...which is saying something. Fabulous match.

Nondisposable Johnny

Diane said...

Yes, I also thought the mental battle was more fascinating than the shot-making. They psyched each other out because they had to--they'd never played each before. It was fascinating.

Todd.Spiker said...

I'm not sure you've said yet -- did you manage to watch the final live, or on record/replay a few hours later?

Diane said...

I watched it live. I always stay up or get up to watch the women’s final. But I can’t do that two nights in a row, so I have to watch a replay of the men’s.