Over four months since her U.S. Open win catapulted her into the realms of tennis’ elite, Naomi Osaka at last got to have a true moment in the spotlight.
She was deprived of such a moment in New York in September, her win having been largely marred by a series of tirades by legend Serena Williams against the chair umpire. But there were no boos Saturday night in Melbourne as Osaka solidified her position at the top of women’s tennis with a nail-biting 7-6, 5-7, 6-4 win over the Czech Republic’s Petra Kvitova in the Australian Open final, making her the first Asian woman to top the WTA or ATP singles rankings.
Osaka’s eyes welled up with tears once again during her victory speech, but this time they were of joy, in contrast to the emotions she exhibited as the pro-Williams U.S. Open crowd derided the chair umpire with jeers that spilled over into the trophy presentation following a controversy-filled match.
For a while Saturday it looked as if her moment would again be taken away from her, this time through play on the court rather than drama off of it.
While returning serve and up 5-3 in the second set, Osaka saw three championship points come and go as Kvitova fought valiantly to extend play at Rod Laver Arena.
Osaka’s nerves, steely up until that point, then showed up in a big way as she attempted to serve out the match. Kvitova promptly broke her and steamrolled her way into a third and deciding set.
Osaka, seemingly on the verge of tears, quickly left the court for a bathroom break and, evidently, a brief bit of self-therapy.
“I just thought to myself that this is my second time playing a final. I can’t really act entitled,” the WTA quoted her as saying following the match. “To be playing against one of the best players in the world, to lose a set (and) suddenly think that I’m so much better than her, that that isn’t a possibility.”
Even six months ago, the talented but, at the time, inconsistent Osaka might have crumbled under such circumstances. Rackets would be thrown, eyes would be rolled and screams of frustration would be heard across the stadium grounds. But she and her coach, Sascha Bajin, have gone to great lengths to improve her mental game, an essential part of any champion’s tennis DNA.
From the start of their player-coach relationship, Bajin “was very positive and I was really happy about that because I tend to (get) down on myself a lot,” she told the tournament’s official website after the match.
The newfound strength between her ears was evident in her third-round contest against Taiwan’s Hsieh Su-wei, a match that nearly brought an early end to Osaka’s Australian Open as she was forced to come back from a set and 4-2 down. And it would have to show itself again if she was going to survive a third set against the two-time Wimbledon champion Kvitova.
The 21-year-old returned from the brief break looking like the confident player that graced the court for the first set and a half and had her opponent reeling, and nothing like the shell-shocked one who had let the second frame slip away.
From that point forward, Osaka again dictated the flow of the match, using her powerful serve to set herself up for easy putaways and blasting returns whenever the strong-serving Kvitova gave her even a tiny window of opportunity.
In the third set, Osaka fired a pair of aces and 12 winners to Kvitova’s zero and seven. She also got more aggressive on her second serve, upping her average speed from 130 kph in the second set — where she won a nightmarish 25% of her second serve points — to 141 kph in the third set, good enough to net her 50% of those points.
And when it came time to close out the match, the nervy one-time grand slam champion was nowhere to be found. In her place: The world No. 1 and a bonafide superstar.