In a battle of favorites, Osaka prevails in Oz Open final

MELBOURNE, Australia – Other than the reality that there would, literally, be a loser in this Australian Open women’s singles final, there were no losers.

For fans of women’s tennis – of tennis – there was massive appeal in either new champion.

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And the fact that this new champion would also become the new world No. 1 just added to the stakes.

For Petra Kvitova, just getting back to a major final for the first time in nearly five years was a win, given what she’d been though.

For Naomi Osaka, just 21 and already under such tremendous pressure on and off the court, it was an opportunity to win a second straight Grand Slam title. And this time, it would come without all of the collateral baggage of that infamous US Open finale.

In the end, after a few dramatic twists and turns, it was the Japanese star who closed out a 7-6 (2), 5-7, 6-4 victory that sealed both her second major, and the top spot in the rankings on Monday.

Osaka will have done it by winning just three tournaments. But they are three big ones: Indian Wells last March, the US Open, and now, the Australian Open.

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Flinching at the finish line

She was as poised as you could ask for – for most of the first two sets.

Until she had to win that final point.

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Osaka after her victory, as she tried to take it all in.

And then, Osaka stuttered.

She had love-40 – three match points, on Kvitova’s serve at 3-5 in the second set. And she couldn’t win one of them although, as she said later, those opportunities came on her opponent’s serve.

The Czech lefty, who had sprayed too many balls for the first set and a half, tied down her sails, got her legs moving again and shut off the freebie pipeline just as Osaka began feeling it.

You could see Osaka’s level of agitation rise with every miss.

The next thing you know, Kvitova had won four consecutive games and the second set, and sent Osaka to the ladies’ room to reset.

Tears in her eyes, she left the court with her towel over her head. It was almost as if she was making sure she kept all those negative thoughts contained, took them off the court with her, and dumped them in the loo.

“I was thinking that if I turn it around, probably it’s on my side. In the end, it wasn’t … I think that for her, she came back and played better game. I don’t know. She left. She went (to) the toilet. I was before there as well. There is nothing really special,” said Kvitova, who even in her disappointment could laugh. “Yeah, maybe she calmed down a bit.”

Kvitova extricated herself from another love-40 situation down 2-4 in the third set. But she could never recuperate an early break.

And this time, Osaka closed it out.

“In the third set of the match today, I literally tied to turn off all my feelings. So that’s why I wasn’t yelling as much in the third set,” Osaka said. “I felt like I was a robot, kind of hollow in a way, and was just executing my orders. But when it got towards the end, I started to realize how big the situation was, and I think I started yelling ‘C’mon’ again.”

Tears of disappointment

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There were a lot of emotions during the trophy presentation.

Even as she slowly walked to the net, and reached over to give Osaka a hug, you could see the tears in Kvitova’s huge blue eyes.

There was no point in even hiding the disappointment.

She had come so close. She had fought so hard throughout the Australian summer. And she fell just short.

As she spoke, with her friend Li Na nearby to hand the Daphne Akhurst Trophy to her opponent, her voice wavered.

She addressed her team, and the crowd responded with a wave of applause.

“Thank you for everything, but mostly, thank you for sticking with me, even we didn’t know if I would able to hold the racket again,” she said. “You were there every single day supporting me, and staying positive for me, which I really needed.”

Later, Kvitova said she it might take awhile to get over this one.

“When I look back, I did have my chances in the first set  … Did have few break points. I don’t think I played something really badly, but I just think I should maybe go a little bit more aggressive one or two rallies.,” Kvitova said. “I really fight back in the second set. I’m proud of myself in that case. And, yeah, the third set was just one break. That’s how the tennis is. It’s the final.”

For Osaka, a big blur

Osaka

Osaka’s reaction after the victory was to get to her chair, lean over, and put her pink adidas visor over her face.

Meanwhile, in her very full supporters’ box, a lot of very happy, incidental people were jumping up and down and hugging each other. Osaka had no family members in the box; no one who has been on this journey with her from the get-go.

Her coach of a little over a year, Sascha Bajin, and trainer were there. But Osaka is a corporation now, and it was very much a corporate box.

“I don’t know. I thought the match was still going on, and I felt like I was in a state of shock during the whole trophy presentation,” she said later during a television interview with new host broadcaster Channel 9.

“Of course  I felt very disappointed and sad when I had those three match points. I tried to tell myself there’s nothing I can do about it, but you always have these doubts,” she added. “I told myself it’s a final.  I’m playing against Petra and she’s a great champion.  I can’t let myself act … immature in a way? I’m grateful to be here, so I had to act that way.”

A question about the Summer Olympics in Tokyo next year, and how she was likely to be the face of it, was me with a “Yikes.”

“Hopefully, for their sake, they don’t do that,” she said.

But with two majors and the No. 1 ranking three months after her 21st birthday, who knows how big she might be in another 18 months?

“It still hasn’t sunk in yet. I’ve just finished playing my match. For me, maybe if I see my sister, I can say, ‘Guess who’s the number one tennis player? Me!’  Maybe then,” she said.

For Kvitova, now 28, it’s back to the No. 2 spot in the rankings. She first reached that penultimate slot – her career high – in Oct., 2011 at age 21. She had won her first major that summer at Wimbledon and then wrapped up the year-end finals that month.

That so-far elusive top spot is very close. She could have grabbed it with a victory Saturday night. Still, she has a lot to look forward to in 2019 after such a strong start. 

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