“Erm, hello,” Naomi Osaka started. “Sorry, public speaking isn't my strong point so I hope I can get through this…I read notes before this but I still forgot what I was meant to say. Thank you everyone, I am really honoured to have played in this final.”
"Public speaking isn't really my strong suit. So, I hope I can get through this."
— Firstpost Sports (@FirstpostSports) January 26, 2019
Osaka did get through the awkward speech at the presentation ceremony, and then posed for the photographers, dazed and confused in the face of constant cheers and camera shutters. It was amazing how uncomfortable and out of place she looked on a stage that she had so recently conquered.
On the tennis court, before it was turned into a site for the presentation ceremony, Osaka had been fearless. She played with a composure quite rare in someone only 21 years old to beat Petra Kvitova 7-6(2), 5-7, 6-4 in the final of the Australian Open. Osaka dared, then stuttered, then coolly collected the pieces of her shattered confidence to win her second straight Grand Slam title.
The scenes at the Rod Laver Arena, on Saturday, were far less dramatic than the US Open final last September. At the time, the Japanese player, in her first Major final, had to remain calm while the world around her was seemingly going crazy. Umpire Carlos Ramos piled on the code violations against Osaka’s idol and rival Serena Williams, who lost her cool. The American crowd booed at the scenes and kept the hostile atmosphere going right till the end of the match. Osaka seemed to have zipped up an invisible shield around her as she marched to a historic, straight-sets win.
On Saturday, the drama was mostly Osaka’s own doing.
The final between Osaka and Kvitova was billed as the battle of the heavy hitters. The Czech, on a fairytale comeback of her own, had been solid on her service games in the tournament and not lost a single set going into the summit clash. Her improved fitness had helped her retrieve a lot more balls, but Kvitova is essentially the aggressor on the court, hitting big bruising shots. Meanwhile, Osaka had served the most aces in the tournament (50) and broken her opponent’s serve the most times (28).
The Japanese survived a good start from Kvitova, and once she had fought back from 0-40 down in the seventh game, Osaka took off. She hit hard and deep, robbing Kvitova of time and space. On the Czech’s big serve, Osaka stood on the baseline and stepped in another three feet to take the ball early and start dictating the rally. The 28-year-old Czech managed to stave off two set points in the 12th game and push the set into the tie-breaker. Osaka got the first mini-break and she struck a backhand down the line return winner and sneak 2-0 ahead. She carried on the advantage, studded the breaker with two more striking forehand winners and won it 7-2.
Though Osaka lost her first service game in the second set, she hit back by winning four games in a row. Kvitova was finding it hard to find answers to such relentless pressing from the youngster, and the match looked locked and done when she fell behind 0-40 at 3-5. Osaka held three championship points. Kvitova saved the first with a gutsy forehand cross court winner. It wasn’t the most stunning shot the Czech had hit all fortnight, but it might have been the most crucial of them all. It was the beginning of the unlikely comeback, as Kvitova stayed strong, and won 22 of the next 26 points. At the other end, Osaka was on the brink of a meltdown as everything she touched turned to dust. She struggled to keep her serve in at 5-6, serving a double fault to concede the game at love.
Overwhelmed by emotion, the Japanese left the court for a bathroom break in tears.
“When I'm not calm, it just makes my life harder,” Osaka had said earlier in the tournament. “So I just try to, like, there is an inner peace I can tap into sometimes during my matches, and it's kind of hard to get to, but once I'm there, it's really easy. Not easy, but nothing can really bother me. So that's just something that I'm trying to learn how to do consistently.”
Fortunately for Osaka, Kvitova was serving first in the decider, giving her some breathing space after returning on court. In the next game, after moving Kvitova around in a rally, Osaka once again unleashed a forehand down-the-line winner — which had been her weapon of choice all evening — to make it 1-1. On break point on Kvitova’s serve in the third game, Osaka struck a backhand winner to edge back in to lead. The inner turbulence was seemingly over.
Athletes take a lifetime to learn how to live in the moment, unaffected by what happened and by what’s to come. But Osaka, in only her fourth Australian Open, had managed to do that. The little stutter in the second set was forgotten and forgiven; she had slipped back into groove.
Kvitova once again bouncing back from 0-40 down in the seventh game seemed like a cruel test. But Osaka let that pass. This time when she served for the match at 5-4, she did so without blinking an eye. Osaka started off with an ace, followed it up with a forehand winner. At 40-15 up, she served down the middle; Kvitova’s weak forehand reply flew out. There were no over-the-top celebrations by Osaka, who only bowed her head and let relief pour over.
Before the 2018 US Open, Osaka had never gone beyond the fourth round. Now she has won two out of two Slam finals, in the process becoming the first woman since Jennifer Capriati in 2001 to follow-up a maiden Grand Slam with another and the first since Williams in 2015 to win two Majors in a row.
On Monday, Osaka will ascend to World No 1, the first Asian man or woman to do so.
“I thought the match was still going on,” said Osaka later. “I think I was in a state of shock during the entire trophy presentation.”
Why bother with words when you can walk the talk.
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Updated Date: Jan 27, 2019 14:34:40 IST