They called it the feelgood final, a match that could only deliver an upbeat narrative, no matter who won. Yet Naomi Osaka almost experienced a Jana Novotna-esque disaster as she allowed three match points to slip through her strings.
As tennis searches for its next superstar, it is perhaps a mercy that Osaka – who is only 21 – was able to recover. She came into this tournament decrying her own habit of becoming sulky during difficult matches. How quickly and decisively she learned the lesson, mastering her own disappointment like a seasoned veteran.
After losing the last four games of the second set, and thus being dragged into a decider, Osaka left the court with her towel over her head. Later, she admitted that she was using the towel to hide her tears. But when she came back, it seemed as though she had wiped her hard drive and erased any memory of her previous choke. And when the opportunity came again, she took it quite nervelessly.
So it was that Osaka completed her 7-6, 5-7, 6-4 victory over Petra Kvitova, and set up a bunch of meaningful statistics. First and foremost, she will be the new world No 1 when the rankings are released on Monday, the first Asian player of either gender to top the ladder. On top of that, she broke the sequence of eight different slam winners in as many tournaments. And became the first maiden grand-slam winner to double up at the next major since Jennifer Capriati in 2001.
Above all, she has changed the whole narrative of women’s tennis. Until now, it was assumed that Serena Williams would win any tournament she attended, as long as she could achieve her optimal level. Now you have to think that even a fit and firing Williams would have a hard time overcoming Osaka, and perhaps Kvitova as well.
Williams’ unique selling point used to be her ability to hit with both power and heavy topspin, which gave her more margin for error than Maria Sharapova’s flat, laser-like groundstrokes. But both Saturday’s finalists can match her on that front, while also moving better and defending more tenaciously.
Their collision happened at high speed, with only 40 of the 228 points extending past four shots. Kvitova threw some huge punches but her long-legged frame is not quite as well-suited to defensive scrambling as Osaka’s more compact physique.
The ability to demand one more shot proved vital, as did Osaka’s clarity of mind down the home stretch. Assuming that she continues to build on her recent feats, she looks like the most significant arrival in this sport since Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray began moving mountains just over a decade ago.
If the match was good, the presentation ceremony was even better. After the humiliating shambles that concluded the US Open, Osaka showed her class once again in a moving speech of appreciation. “I’ve always wanted to play you,” she told Kvitova, “and you’ve been through so much. Honestly I wouldn’t have wanted this to be our first match. But huge congrats to you and your team and you’re really amazing.”
Kvitova’s emotive back story probably made her the slight favourite with the crowd, even if the patrons of the self-style “grand slam of Asia/Pacific” feel kinship with the likes of Osaka and Li Na, the Chinese woman who won here in 2014, and presented the trophies.
To recap, a knife-wielding burglar attacked Kvitova in her own flat in Prostejov just over two years ago. She suffered deep cuts to her racket hand, severing tendons and leaving her with nerve damage. Her surgeon thought it highly unlikely that she would return to the highest level of the game. And yet, as of Monday, she will be the world No 2.
Kvitova was tearful as she accepted her runner-up trophy. “To my team, thank you for everything,” she said. “But mostly thank you for sticking with me even though we didn’t know if I was able to hold the racket again. You were there every single day supporting me and staying positive for me which I really needed. It probably wasn’t easy so thank you very much.”
What a contrast this warm-hearted occasion made to the horrible scenes in New York in September, when boos met Osaka’s victory over Williams, and Katrina Adams – the president of the United States Tennis Association – told the crowd that, “Perhaps it’s not the finish we were looking for today.”
The first instance was deeply uncomfortable, forcing Osaka to pull her cap down over her face to conceal her hurt and embarrassment. Whereas Saturday’s formalities were joyful, an exchange of respect between two hugely-likeable players. At some stage, Osaka will attend a presentation ceremony that comes unfreighted with so much external emotion. She will probably find it rather dull.
In an interview with the Channel Nine broadcasting team, just moments after coming off court, Osaka explained her internal dialogue during the ebbs and flows of the match. “I felt very disappointed and sad when I had those three match points [in the second set]. I tried to tell myself there was nothing I could do about it, but you always have doubts.
“I just told myself that it is a final and I am playing against Petra and she is a great champion. I can’t let myself act immature in a way. I should be grateful to be here and that is what I tried to be.
“In the third set, I literally just tried to turn off all my feelings. I just felt kind of hollow, like I was a robot. I was just executing my orders. I didn’t waste any energy reacting too much. But then when it got towards the end, then I started realising how big the situation was, and I started yelling, ‘C’mon’ again.”
To explain the events of another dramatic evening did not come easily to Osaka, an introvert who admits she barely speaks 10 sentences in the average day. By the time she reached the interview room to address the written media, it was almost 12.30am, and her eyelids were drooping. “I’m just so tired,” said the new queen of tennis. “I don’t know how anyone is awake right now.”
Osaka, the new world No. 1, speaks
“Sorry, public speaking isn’t really my strong side. I just hope I can get through this… Huge congrats to Petra, I always wanted to play you. You’ve been through so much and I honestly wouldn’t want this to be our first match.
“You’re really amazing and I’m so honoured to have played you.
“I want to thank you guys for coming and watching. Even though it’s really hot, you guys come and show support so I really want to show my gratitude to you.
“Thank you to Craig [Tiley, tournament director], the ball kids, the umpires, you make this tournament what it is.
“To my team, I don’t think I would have made it through this week behind you guys. Behind a tennis player is always a team so I’m really grateful.
“I read notes before this but I’ve still forgotten what I’m supposed to say. I’m really honoured to play in this final so thank you.”
Source: Yahoo Sports/The Telegraph
Pictures: Sports Ilustrated