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Naomi Osaka makes history, wins second straight Grand Slam final over valiant Petra Kvitova at Australian Open

AP, AFP-JIJI

So close to victory, Naomi Osaka suddenly was letting the Australian Open final slip away. Three championship points? Gone. A sizable lead? Soon all gone, too.

She was playing poorly. She yelled at herself. Slammed a ball. Tugged at her visor’s pink brim. Trudged to the locker room between sets with a towel draped over her head.

And then, after returning to the court, Osaka turned it all around just as quickly as she had dropped 23 of 27 points. Regrouping and reasserting herself, Osaka edged Petra Kvitova 7-6 (7-2), 5-7, 6-4 on Saturday night to win the Australian Open for a second consecutive Grand Slam title.

Osaka fell to one knee in celebration, head bowed, as Melbourne Park erupted in thunderous cheers.

“I felt like I was in a state of shock through the entire trophy presentation,” the 21-year-old said.

Her gutsy performance confirms her status as the leading light of tennis’ new generation.

On top of that, Osaka will rise to No. 1 in the rankings, becoming the first Japanese woman to accomplish the feat.

Almost didn’t happen, though, against two-time Wimbledon champion Kvitova.

Osaka held three match points in the second set at 5-3, love-40 as Kvitova served. But Osaka couldn’t close it out. Instead, she completely lost her way.

The never-say-die Kvitova forced a deciding set before Osaka finally edged ahead with a decisive break early in the third.

“Of course I felt very disappointed and sad when I had three match points,” she said.

“I tried to tell myself there’s nothing I can do about it. Told myself I’m playing a final and need to keep fighting and couldn’t act immature and needed to keep fighting.”

Her jubilation was a marked contrast to Osaka’s maiden Grand Slam win last year, when she tearfully hid her face as boos rang around Flushing Meadows in the wake of losing finalist Serena Williams’ tirade at the umpire.

This time, Osaka cried with joy and smiled as she became the youngest woman to win back-to-back majors since Martina Hingis in 1998 and the youngest No. 1 since Caroline Wozniacki in 2010.

That allowed Kvitova to come back and make a match of it, reeling off five games in a row to take the second set and go up 1-0 in the third.

Hard as it must have been, Osaka recovered. She also got her powerful shots going again. After Kvitova double-faulted to offer up a break point at 1-all, Osaka converted it with a cross-court backhand winner. There was still more work to be done, of course, and some additional drama when it began raining at the changeover right before Osaka tried to serve for the match at 5-4 in the third set.

This time, Osaka would not falter. She would not let this lead disappear. As a result, Osaka is the first woman to win two major championships in a row since Williams picked up four straight in 2014-15.

“I knew that Petra couldn’t keep it up for that long if Naomi could just manage those emotions,” said Osaka’s coach, Sascha Bajin, “and she did that beautifully.”

She was born in Japan — her mother is Japanese, her father is Haitian — and she moved to New York at age 3. Now she’s based in Florida and has dual citizenship. Osaka already was the first player representing Japan — female or male — to win a Grand Slam singles title. Now she also is the first to top the WTA or ATP rankings.

And to think, a year ago, Osaka was ranked 72nd.

What a climb. What a quick climb.

“Amazing achievement,” Kvitova said of Osaka. “Definitely she is a great one. We’ll see what the future will bring.”

Kvitova was playing in her first Grand Slam final since winning Wimbledon five years ago — and the first since she was stabbed in the hand by an intruder at her home in the Czech Republic a little more than two years ago.

“You’ve been through so much,” Osaka told Kvitova during the trophy ceremony. “I’m really honored to have played you in the final of a Grand Slam.”

On a somewhat cloudy, rather comfortable evening, with only a slight breeze and the temperature around 25 C, both women hit the ball as hard as can be. Exchanges were mostly at the baseline and filled with flat, powerful groundstrokes that barely cleared the net and made retrieving and replying as much about reflexes as anything.

Here’s one measure of how even it was: Each finished with 33 winners.

Points were swift and blunt; of 86 in the first set, only four lasted nine strokes or more. There was plenty of strong serving, clean hitting and good movement.

It was Osaka who was the first to get ahead, tearing through the tiebreaker by grabbing five points in a row — four via winners — to go up 5-1. When Kvitova sailed a backhand wide moments later, ceding a set for the first time all tournament, Osaka pumped her fist and screamed, “Come on!”

How pivotal was that moment? Kvitova had won her last 22 Grand Slam matches after winning the first set. Osaka, meanwhile, entered the day having won 59 matches anywhere after going up by a set.

When Osaka broke to lead 3-2 in the second set, and then got to 5-3, the outcome seemed to be a foregone conclusion. Turned out, that wasn’t the case. Not at all.