A strong forehand crosscourt winner from Petra Kvitova, and a couple of hours later, a Naomi Osaka ace – that hawk-eye confirmed just about clipped the line – down the T. It was in this confident manner in which the pair sealed match points in their respective semi-finals at the Australian Open. And on Saturday, when the two walk out onto the Rod Laver Arena to face each other for the first time, that too in the final, there will be more on offer than the title, the ranking points and the cool AUD 4.1 million in prize money. On offer will be the chance to consolidate their position on the topsy-turvy women’s tour.
Both Osaka and Kvitova have similar hard-hitting playing styles, but are in different stages of their career.
The young Japanese is the current US Open champion, and just by making it to the semi-finals in Melbourne, became the first first-time winner of a major to reach the final four of the subsequent Slam since Kim Clijsters reached the last four of the 2006 Australian Open.
At 21, Osaka has long drawn in comparisons with Serena Williams, and naturally, was quickly burdened with expectations of becoming a multiple Grand Slam champion. The World No 4 is slowly living up to that billing. On Saturday, she’ll have a chance to become the first player since Williams in 2015 to win back-to-back Slams. And she’s drawing from her experience at the US Open last year to give herself a shot.
“I think for me, it definitely helped knowing that I won the US Open because I knew that I had the ability to win that many matches, play for that long,” she said after her semi-final. “I was thinking about that while I was playing this tournament, but at the same time I didn't want to dwell too much on it.”
Young and hungry, Osaka comes up against a veteran of the game, a two-time Wimbledon champion whose career had been abruptly halted by a knife-attack at her home in the Czech Republic, which left her severely wounded on her playing arm.
In December 2016, Kvitova underwent surgery immediately after the attack, but only regained usage of her arm four months later. Physically, she had recovered, but mentally the cuts ran deeper.
“It's kind of weird, to be honest, as well, that I didn't know even if I was gonna play tennis again,” she said after her semi-final about the incident. “It wasn't a really nice time to be dealing with everything. It wasn't only physically but mentally was very tough, as well. It took me really while to believe the people around me again, and especially the men, for sure.”
But she did get back on court and go through the grind of getting back to form. She’s defied the odds, and now the World No 6 has made it to her first Australian Open final, five years after she won her second Wimbledon title.
“You know, that's why I worked pretty hard to be back there. It just tastes very great. So I'm really happy to be back there again,” she said. “To be honest, I think not very many people believe that I can do that again, to stand on the court and play tennis and kind of play on this level. It was just really few of them, I think.”
One of her backers, was a certain Monica Seles, a nine-time Grand Slam champion who was stabbed on court during a match in Hamburg. Kvitova explained that Seles had wanted to meet her shortly before Wimbledon last year.
“I know that how it (affected) her career a lot, especially it happened on the court,” she said. “So it's a bit different, but it was such a nice feeling to meet someone who kind of went through same things and thoughts and everything.”
Despite the struggle of getting back on tour, Kvitova has stormed through the draw in Melbourne. The eighth seed has not dropped a single set in her six matches, and in her semi-final against American Danielle Collins, came up with a resounding 7-6(2), 6-0 win.
Osaka, meanwhile, has been pushed to three sets three times in her six matches – against Su Wei Hsieh and Anastasija Sevastova in the third and fourth rounds respectively. Then there was the high-intensity semi-final over Karolina Pliskova, who had beaten Serena Williams in the quarter-finals. Osaka came through that outing with a 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 win.
As it stands before the final, when the world rankings change on Monday, Osaka will become the first Japanese player, man or woman, to reach the World No 1 spot in singles, and Kvitova will match her career-high of No 2. That can change however depending on the results.
The World No 1 spot is another thing at stake on Saturday.
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Updated Date: Jan 25, 2019 22:02:30 IST