Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 27, 2019

This Time, Naomi Osaka Hears Cheers

When most sports fans last saw Naomi Osaka, she was filling the dual roles of champion and victim. On the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens, the 20-year-old had just beaten Serena Williams, the dominant women’s player of the past twenty years, to capture last year’s U.S. Open and her first Grand Slam title. But the Open Final had veered into chaos when Williams turned a disagreement with the chair umpire into an ugly scene, leaving Osaka in tears as boos poured down from the thousands in the stands during the awards ceremony.

That the catcalls were directed not at the new champion, who had just put on an exceptional display of tennis, but rather at the official who was the target of Williams’s wrath and at the USTA in general was of little consequence in the moment. As was noted in this space at the time, “Any tears that Naomi Osaka shed should have been of joy. For all who robbed her of that, shame on them.” One couldn’t help but wonder when or even if Osaka would again have an opportunity for sheer happiness like the one that was taken away from her that night in Flushing last September.

Well it turns out that another such moment has come Osaka’s way, and as the tennis calendar goes, she didn’t have to wait very long at all for it to arrive. On Saturday, more than ten thousand miles from the USTA’s sprawling tennis home in New York, Osaka was back on court for the Final of the very next Grand Slam tournament, the Australian Open.

In the months since her U.S. Open victory, Osaka celebrated a birthday and had deep runs at both the Pan Pacific and China Opens, before bowing out of the season-ending WTA Finals with a hamstring injury. After starting 2018 ranked 72nd in the world, she finished the year ranked 4th, and that’s where she was seeded in Melbourne.

But despite her lofty new status Osaka’s journey to the Final at Rod Laver Arena was considerably more challenging than her path in New York had been. In September she dropped just a single set in all seven of her matches. In contrast over the last two weeks Osaka was pushed to the full three sets in three of her six matches leading up to the Final. In both the third and fourth rounds she dropped the opening set, first to Su-wei Hsieh, the 28th seed, and then to 13th seed Anastasija Sevastova. Both time she rallied strongly, defeating Hsieh 5-7, 6-4, 6-1, and finishing off Sevastova 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.

In the quarterfinals Osaka polished off Elina Svitolina, who had won the WTA Finals that Osaka was forced to quit back in October, in straight sets. As the draw unfolded that left a pair of Czech women between the U.S. Open titlist and a second straight Grand Slam.

The first of those was the 7th seed, 26-year-old Karolina Pliskova, who had ended the Australian Open run of Williams in the quarters, in a match that Serena appeared to have in hand. With the match even at a set each, Williams stormed to a 5-1 lead in the third and was serving for victory. But she foot-faulted on match point and rolled her ankle in doing so. Whether the injury was worse than it appeared or merely a sufficient distraction, Williams didn’t win another game, eventually squandering four match points and losing to Pliskova 6-4, 4-6, 7-5. Against Osaka, Pliskova managed to push the match to three sets. But by her own admission she was behind throughout the 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 match. “There was not much I could do,” was Pliskova’s observation after going down to defeat.

Across the net from Osaka in the Final was Petra Kvitová, who triumphed at Wimbledon in 2011 when she was Osaka’s age, and won again on the London grass in 2014. That the 28-year-old was back in a Grand Slam Final was itself a wonderful story. Following the 2016 season the left-handed Kvitová was stabbed in her dominant hand by a knife-wielding robber at her home. While he didn’t tell her at the time, the initial opinion of the surgeon who operated to repair her tendon and nerve injuries was that she might not play competitively again. But less than a year later she reached the quarterfinals at the 2017 U.S. Open and she won five WTA events last year.

The result was a taut three-set match between two aggressive ball-strikers. Kvitová had the better chances in the first set, with a total of five break points. But Osaka saved them all, and the set went to a tiebreaker without either player dropping a single service game. Then Osaka quickly took control, winning a mini-break on Kvitová’s very first service, and another one after the next exchange, while holding all her own serves. The result was a 7-2 win in the tiebreak, for a 7-6 first set.

But Kvitová kept pushing in the second set, and Osaka’s emotions threatened to get the better of her. After dropping the last four games and losing the set, and in the process letting three championship points slip away, a clearly angry Osaka used her allowed break to leave the court and regroup. As she’s worked her way up the rankings over the past few seasons, Osaka has been known to beat herself. But on Saturday she tried to “turn off her feelings” and “play like a robot.”

As pep talks go that might seem a bit odd, but it worked. Osaka broke Kvitová in the third game of the final set, and several minutes later she was serving for the match. She opened that final game with an ace, her fifty-ninth of the tournament, which was twenty-two more than the next highest woman. At 40-15 Kvitová could only flail at another rocket serve, her return sailing well wide. Osaka sank into a crouch as the crowd roared its approval of her 7-6, 5-7, 6-4 win and back-to-back Grand Slam titles.

This time, the new number one player in the women’s rankings knew that it was okay to smile. As she did so, those same fans who wondered last September when Naomi Osaka would have another opportunity at a Grand Slam began to realize that she’s likely to have many, many more.

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