Naomi Osaka recovered from a dramatic second-set collapse to defeat Petra Kvitova and be crowned Australian Open champion and the new world number one.
The 21-year-old from Japan, the first Asian man or woman to top the singles rankings, built on her maiden title at the US Open with a 7-6 (2) 5-7 6-4 victory to make it back-to-back slam successes.
Judging by what will surely be the first two of many slam finals, Osaka does not do routine. But, while her victory over Serena Williams in New York was all about controversy and meltdowns, this time the drama was all on the scoreboard.
At a set and 5-3 with Kvitova facing three match points, Osaka looked poised to stroll over the finish line only to lose four games in a row and the second set.
She had lost her head, too, but one of the most impressive things about her this fortnight has been the way she has overcome every mental hurdle placed in front of her and so it proved again.
Kvitova, who would also have become number one with victory, was playing in her first grand slam final since winning her second Wimbledon title in 2014 and only two years after the knife attack at her home that put her career in the balance.
The Czech had won her last eight finals and more than played her part in a generally high-quality encounter but in the end had no answer.
Osaka and Kvitova are two of the biggest hitters on the women’s tour and long rallies were scarce as both looked to unleash at the first opportunity.
Osaka came under pressure at 2-2 and 3-3 but saved a combined five break points, while also seeing a break point on the Kvitova serve well saved by the Czech.
Somewhat strangely, the pair had never faced each other before, and Osaka’s lack of experience against top-class left-handers was one of the match-up’s unknown factors.
"Huge congrats to Petra. I've always wanted to play you. You've been through so much, honestly I wouldn't have wanted this to be our first match."@Naomi_Osaka_ is all class 🙏#AusOpen pic.twitter.com/8WxY6PVNc2— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 26, 2019
Osaka struggled to read Kvitova’s serve initially but picked up the pace in the 12th game, forcing two set points. She could not take either, though, Kvitova producing a tremendously gutsy forehand to save the first and then a big serve on the second.
However, the Czech was simply outplayed in the tie-break, Osaka powering a return onto the line for a winner on the second point and not looking back.
Given Osaka had won her last 59 matches when taking the first set, the size of Kvitova’s task was clear, but the 28-year-old responded well and secured the first break of the match on her seventh chance.
However, a missed opportunity to make it 3-0 looked very costly as Osaka won five of the next six games. When she won the next three points to bring up three match points, it appeared the trophy was hers.
But Karolina Pliskova’s win over Serena Williams from 1-5 and match points down showed that a tennis match is never over until the final ball is hit, and this time it was her fellow Czech mounting the unlikely comeback.
Osaka was struggling to hold back tears as she left the court for a bathroom break but not for no reason has she now won 60 straight matches when claiming the first set.
Ending Kvitova’s run of five straight games was crucial and, when Osaka powered a backhand full of anger and frustration past Kvitova to break for 2-1, the power had shifted once more.
Stepping up to serve for the match for a second time, Osaka’s demons were nowhere to be seen and she clinched her fifth match point to ascend to the throne as the new queen of tennis.
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Williams is the 16th seed but very much the title favourite, and this performance only reinforced that status as she eased to a 6-2, 6-2 victory.
There were perhaps a few more errors than Williams would have liked but also 20 winners and some devastating play, particularly in taking apart the Bouchard serve.
Standing next in the 23-time grand slam champion’s way is 18-year-old Ukrainian Dayana Yastremska, who upset 23rd seed Carla Suarez Navarro to reach the third round of a slam for the first time.
Having survived a first-round test against her US Open conqueror Kaia Kanepi, Halep looked to be finding things more comfortable against young American Sofia Kenin as she moved a set and 3-0 ahead.
But 20-year-old Kenin, who won her maiden WTA Tour title in Hobart last weekend, fought back to take the second set and led 4-2 in the third only for Halep to win the final four games and the match 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-4.
Speaking on court, the world number one said: “I have no idea how I won tonight.”
It does not get any easier for Halep, who is nursing a leg muscle problem and next faces Venus Williams. The American also came through a three-setter, defeating France’s Alize Cornet 6-3, 4-6, 6-0.
Halep said: “She’s a great player, a champion. It’s always a big challenge for me to face the sisters. So we will see how I will play, how I’m going to be on court. But I will be confident because I played against her, I know how she plays. I have to be strong.”
US Open champion Naomi Osaka was coy about a slight injury scare after calling the trainer during her 6-2, 6-4 victory over Tamara Zidansek.
The fourth seed, who next faces the tricky Hsieh Su-wei, said: “I was able to finish and win the match, so it’s not that big of a deal. It’s something that I have to keep an eye on. I’m not telling you, though.”
Elina Svitolina was in her comfort zone in moving through to the third round – but less so when her relationship with fellow player Gael Monfils was made public.
Monfils was spotted in Svitolina’s player box during her 6-4, 6-1 victory over Viktoria Kuzmova in the second round, leading to an awkward moment when she was asked about it during her on-court interview.
“I didn’t really expect to be asked that because I just finished my match,” said the sixth-seeded Ukrainian. “We are here for tennis so that’s why it was a bit strange.”
Svitolina, who previously dated England cricketer Reece Topley, added of the relationship: “He’s there for me, he’s supporting me, and I’m there for him as well. He understands, I understand, what we’re going through. It’s great.”
For all the talk of the unpredictability of the women’s game, the story of the tournament so far has been the top players dominating, and it was the same on Thursday.
Suarez Navarro was the only seed to fall, with the likes of Karolina Pliskova, Madison Keys and Elise Mertens all moving through to the last 32.
23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams has been added to the star-studded line-up for this year’s Mubadala World Tennis Championship (MWTC), which will take place from December 27-29.
The tennis superstar will be joining her sister, Venus Williams, in the women’s side of the 11th edition – with lucky fans having the chance to see the siblings battle it out at the International Tennis Centre at Zayed Sports City in addition to all the entertainment in store for the family on Day One of the Championship.
What’s more, in order to get more young fans to watch the Williams sisters in action, organisers are encouraging families can take advantage of the special offer whereby children can enter for free on purchase of an adult ticket on day one of the MWTC.
Commenting on her second appearance in Abu Dhabi, Serena said: “I loved playing in Abu Dhabi last year. I am excited to return to such a beautiful city and to see my fans. This time, I’ll be playing against my sister, so the match will be even more special.”
Serena, 37, considered by many as one of the greatest tennis players of all-time, will be aiming to equal the record for the most Grand Slam wins (24) at the Australian Open in January 2019 – and MWTC will serve as a fantastic chance to sharpen her tennis skills ahead of this important tournament.
Serena made her return to competitive action at MWTC last year, after nearly a year away from the game following the birth of her daughter – and since then, has gone on to have a strong season reaching the finals at both Wimbledon and the US Open.
At this year’s MWTC, Serena will play her older sister, Venus and fans in Abu Dhabi can look forward to an exciting duel between the duo. The younger Williams enjoys an 18-12 career head-to-head record and met her sister in the round of 32 at this year’s US Open where she went on to win in straight sets 6-1, 6-2.
This year’s line-up is shaping up to be the most exciting as it features six top male players as well as the inspirational Williams’ sisters.
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The men’s side will feature world number one and 14-time Grand Slam Champion Novak Djokovic, world number two and 17-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal, alongside last year’s defending MWTC champion, Kevin Anderson, French Open finalist, Dominic Thiem, Australian Open semi-finalist Hyeon Chung and recent Paris Masters Champion, Karen Khachanov.
Tickets are priced from Dh100 and can be purchased from www.ticketmaster.ae or by calling 800 86 823 from within the UAE or +971 4 366 2289 from outside the country and all Virgin Megastores. Fans looking to attend all three days of the Championship can avail of a special 20-per-cent discount on ticket prices, while families can take advantage of the special offer whereby children can enter for free on purchase of an adult ticket on day one of the Championship.
For more information, visit www.mubadalawtc.com.