All hail the new queen, Naomi Osaka

Naomi Osaka, the first player to her first two majors back to back since Jennifer Capriati in 2001, harbours ambitions of sports immortality. She once told a reporter she wanted “to be the very best, like no one ever was.”

Osaka’s win in Melbourne made her the first Japanese and Asian player to claim the No. 1 ranking in singles.   -  AFP

Just as Richard Williams envisioned creating tennis champions when he watched Virginia Ruzici win $35,000 at a 1979 tournament, Leonard Francois was captivated watching Venus and Serena Williams win the 1999 French Open doubles.

So the Haitian-born Francois followed the Williams blueprint for his daughters Mari and Naomi. He moved the family to tennis hotbed Florida, taught them to play on clay, made them hit thousands of balls a day and, with his Japanese wife Tamaki Osaka, home-schooled them. While the older Mari, 22, ranks only No. 324, Naomi, 21, has skyrocketed to stardom.

In a little more than four months, Naomi Osaka captured her maiden Grand Slam title, outclassing her idol Serena in a tumultuous US Open final, and then seized the Australian Open, outlasting two-major champ Petra Kvitova in yet another dramatic final. Not since Jennifer Capriati in 2001 had a woman won her second major right after winning her first. Osaka’s 7-6 (2), 5-7, 6-4 victory over Kvitova in Melbourne also made her the first Japanese and Asian player to claim the No. 1 ranking in singles. It fittingly came at the self-described “Grand Slam of Asia-Pacific.”

Not only had eight different women won the eight previous majors, but the parity at the top was so pronounced that, incredibly, 11 women had a chance to become No. 1 when the Aussie Open ended. And that didn’t even include Serena, who just happened to be the pre-tournament favourite!

No longer, though, is the legendary Serena, now 37, the player to beat. Her speed and power are fading and her nerves are fraying. At the Australian Open, Serena squandered a 5-1 lead and four match points against seventh-seeded Karolina Pliskova in the deciding set and lost a heartbreaking 6-4, 4-6, 7-5 quarterfinal. While Serena insisted she didn’t choke on the four match points, even more troubling was the all-time greatest server’s failure to win any of the last 10 points when she served. “It’s becoming a little more difficult for Serena to finish off a match,” pointed out Tennis Channel analyst Rennae Stubbs. “Emotionally, Serena has struggled in her two previous Grand Slam finals. Father Time catches up with everybody.”

So Serena’s quest to equal Margaret Court’s all-time record 24 major titles was dashed for the fourth straight time. That quest is now beginning to look almost quixotic.

Osaka, the new queen of tennis, resembles the Serena of yesteryear in striking ways. Both play Big Babe, kill-or-be-killed, first-strike tennis. Both boast powerful serves that produce plenty of aces and often bail them out of break-point trouble. Both thrive on the big stage and are fiercely competitive. While Serena makes no secret of her burning desire to break every record she can, especially Court’s, Osaka also harbours ambitions of sports immortality. She once told a reporter she wanted “to be the very best, like no one ever was.”

What makes Osaka, who ranked a nondescript No. 72 just a year ago, so intriguing as a potential superstar is that she’s still a work in progress. None of the 116 points she won in the finals was at the net, she has an attackable second serve and possesses little finesse. Whatever her shortcomings, Osaka always displayed the courage and resourcefulness of a champion to surmount crisis after crisis.

In the Australian Open third round, Osaka recovered from 7-5, 4-1 down to overcome the 28th-seeded, Taiwanese trickster Su-Wei Hsieh 5-7, 6-4, 6-1. She also dropped the first set and trailed by a service break against 13th seed Anastasija Sevastova before solving the Latvian’s unorthodox style 4-6, 6-3, 6-4. Osaka then cruised past 6th seed Elina Svitolina 6-4, 6-1 to reach the semifinals.

There she faced another master blaster in Pliskova, who led the WTA Tour in aces during 2015–17. Besides ousting Serena, the 6’1” Czech had overwhelmed two-major winner Garbine Muguruza 6-3, 6-1.

Osaka’s rigorous off-season training with new coach Aleksandar (Sascha) Bajin, a German of Serb descent, made her body leaner, fitter, faster and her serve and forehand more lethal. Those improvements proved crucial in her semifinal with Pliskova, played under the roof because the temperature soared to nearly 110 degrees Fahrenheit outside.

In December 2016, a home burglar stabbed Kvitova’s dominant left hand, damaging her ligaments and tendons so severely that her surgeon later acknowledged he doubted she would ever resume her pro career. She returned to competition in just six months.   -  AFP

 

After Osaka and Pliskova split the first two sets, Osaka faced triple break point in the second game of the deciding set. She escaped with an 89mph forehand winner, an audacious backhand winner from behind the alley and a forced forehand error by Pliskova. Osaka held serve and then broke Pliskova’s serve at love. Seven straight points for Osaka! With that momentum, she coasted to a well-deserved 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 victory. “The way she handled the pressure was phenomenal,” praised all-time great Chris Evert, now an ESPN analyst. “She dictated this match with all her winners.” Osaka whacked 56 of them, including an ace on match point, compared to only 20 for Pliskova.

If tennis fans were mesmerised by Osaka’s power and poise, they were enamoured of Kvitova’s resilience. In December 2006, a home burglar stabbed her dominant left hand, damaging her ligaments and tendons so severely that her surgeon later acknowledged he doubted she would ever resume her pro career. “I didn’t know even if I was going to play tennis again,” Kvitova confided before the final. “It wasn’t only physically but mentally was very tough, as well. It took me really long while to believe.”

Unlike superstar Monica Seles, who was tragically stabbed in the back during a Hamburg match changeover in 1993 and sidelined by the trauma for 29 months, Kvitova returned to competition in just six months. The 28-year-old Czech regained her form and confidence, winning five tournaments last year but inexplicably faring poorly at the majors. That Kvitova, who has won the peer-voted WTA sportsmanship award seven times, is one of the tour’s most popular players only made her feel-good story more appealing.

Odds-makers made the left-handed Kvitova a slight favourite over Osaka. The Czech boasted a superb 26-7 record in finals, winning the last eight, and a 2-0 in Grand Slam finals, on Wimbledon grass in 2011 and 2014. She also showed true grit, going 19-5 in three-set matches last year and coming back to win 10 matches after losing the first set.

At the Aussie Open, though, Kvitova capitalized on a draw much easier than Osaka’s. The 8th-seeded Kvitova faced just one seed, 15th seed Ashleigh Barty, a 5’5” athletic Australian, and soundly defeated her 6-1, 6-4 in the quarterfinals. Barty earlier eliminated five-time major titlist Maria Sharapova, also on the comeback trail, after Sharapova knocked out defending champion Caroline Wozniacki. Kvitova won her sixth consecutive match in straight sets when she outhit surprise semifinalist Danielle Collins 7-6, 6-0. The feisty Collins – who said, “I love making it kind of a war” – conquered second seed Angelique Kerber by a shocking 6-0, 6-2 margin, 14th seed Julia Goerges and 19th seed Caroline Garcia.

While defeating six opponents, including four seeds, Osaka led the tournament in aces (50) and winners (226), and saved 70 per cent of the break points against her. “Women’s tennis is getting more and more like men’s tennis with the power and the [first-strike] strategy,” noted Evert.

Besides ousting Serena Williams, Karolina Pliskova had overwhelmed two-major winner Garbine Muguruza 6-3, 6-1. But the 6’1” Czech lost in the semis in three sets to Osaka, who whacked 56 winners in the match, including an ace on match point.   -  AFP

 

Besides a coveted Grand Slam title, the winner would also take over the No. 1 ranking. That Osaka and Kvitova had never faced each other before made the final even more enticing and intriguing.

Not surprisingly, both players held serve throughout the opening set, though Osaka had to fight off five break points and Kvitova three. Osaka faced her most dangerous deficit at 3-all, love-40. But she won the next five points, finishing with a forehand winner, to escape.

Winning the first-set tiebreaker was critical for both of these terrific frontrunners. Kvitova was 20-0 in finals after taking the first set. Osaka was 59-0 overall after grabbing the first set. As they say in boxing when two undefeated fighters clash, “One ‘0’ has to go.”

Osaka got a mini-break for a 2-0 lead when she struck a backhand serve return winner. She pumped her fist and looked at her player’s box for support. An ace, a super-angled, cross-court forehand winner and a forehand passing shot made it 5-1. Three points later, Osaka wrapped up the tiebreaker, 7-2.

With fireworks exploding in the background, Osaka’s booming serve and forehand produced fireworks of their own, as she surged to 5-3 in the second set and three championship points. Kvitova staved them all off, while Osaka became flustered at the lost opportunities. As the crowd grew louder, Osaka put her hands on her ears to muffle the noise. “She’s looking like a 21-year-old now,” Evert commented.

While Kvitova showed her fighting spirit, Osaka showed her nerves. Kvitova then broke Osaka’s serve twice, the second coming when the agitated Osaka double-faulted on set point. Second set to Kvitova, 7-5.

The distraught Osaka left the court in tears for a 10-minute break. Later she explained, “It didn’t really take that long for me to refocus. I just felt like I didn’t want to have any regrets, and if I didn’t regroup after the second set then I would have looked back on this match and probably got upset.”

No longer is the legendary Serena Williams, now 37, the player to beat. Her speed and power are fading and her nerves are fraying. At the Australian Open, Serena squandered a 5-1 lead and four match points against Karolina Pliskova in the deciding set and lost a heartbreaking 6-4, 4-6, 7-5 quarterfinal.   -  AFP

 

Kvitova had the momentum and the experience, but Osaka was far from finished. “It’s going to come down to who keeps her composure [better] and plays the big points better,” said Evert.

Kvitova looked revitalised and Osaka seemed stoical as each easily held serve for 1-all in the deciding set. With the crowd cheering equally for both players, Kvitova double-faulted to go down 30-40. That proved costly as Osaka unleashed a powerful backhand winner to break serve for a 2-1 lead.

Both competed furiously for the rest of the set. Osaka fought off a break to hold for 4-2, expressionless even after smacking an ace and forehand winner to clinch it. In the next game, Kvitova staved off three break points, hitting harder and harder, to survive.

Osaka stuck to her guns, literally, in the final game. This time there would be no collapse. She blasted an ace and a forehand winner to close it out in five quick points. Game, set and title, 7-6, 5-7, 6-4, for Osaka.

After a quick embrace with Kvitova at the net, Osaka smiled toward her player box and briefly cried tears of joy. They were far different from the tears of anxiety she shed following her controversy-marred US Open final victory over Serena last September.

“What a fighter, what a competitor,” raved Evert about the new queen of tennis. “She’s still so young. She still has a lot to learn on and off the court.”

Osaka has said that one of her big goals in 2019 is to mature. If this revealing final turns out to be a microcosm of her season, the maturation is well underway.

The valiant performance by Kvitova, culminating with by far the best Grand Slam event in her inspiring comeback, raised her ranking to No. 2, equalling her past career-high back in 2011.

During her speech to the Rod Laver Arena spectators, Kvitova admitted, “It’s hurting a lot today. I wanted to win and have the trophy. But I already won two years ago [when she had surgery]. So, for me, it’s amazing. I didn’t know if I going to hold the racquet again. I’m holding it, so that’s good.”

“I wanted to be back on my greatest level probably as I played before. I knew it will be very, very difficult because my hand, it’s not 100 per cent and never will be. It’s just how it is. I’m just trying to take maximum from the minimum.

“I feel great. I’m playing great tennis. I don’t think that I could really imagine at the time [of the surgery] to be this kind of player again.”

For Kvitova, the Australian Open marked a happy new beginning back among the game’s elite for what she calls “my second career.” For Osaka, the fabulous fortnight brought a second major title in her brilliant young career as she aspires “to be the very best, like no one ever was.”