The journey from nowhere to world No 1 has been short and very sweet for Naomi Osaka, the new superstar that women’s tennis has long been searching for.
Having been ranked 72 a year ago she finds herself a double Grand Slam champion, and squinting into the glare of global recognition after playing another brilliant final that tested her on every level.
It took two gigantic bites for her to beat Petra Kvitova 7-6 5-7 6-4. This was quite some follow-up to a US Open triumph that was somewhat overlooked due to the behaviour of her opponent that night in New York.
Japan’s Naomi Osaka poses with the trophy after claiming her first Australian Open title in Melbourne on Saturday
Osaka and Kvitova pose with their trophies after a thrilling final which saw the Japanese win 7-6 5-7 6-4 in over two hours
Kvitova speaks after collecting the runner-up trophy following her defeat by 21-year-old Osaka in Melbourne
Japan’s Osaka celebrates after winning the Australian Open final against Czech Republic’s Kvitova on Saturday
Kvitova congratulates Osaka following an undulating contest between the pair which lasted two hours and 17 minutes
Osaka takes it in all in after claiming her first Australian Open title and becoming a back-to-back Grand Slam champion
The match could have been over an hour before it was actually completed after she failed to nail three match points at 5-3 in the second set. What she displayed, ultimately, was the kind of composure that is uncoachable and which true champions have within themselves, as seen against Serena Williams in New York.
The wider impact on tennis of the 21-year-old’s success will be profound, especially coming in the wake of China’s Li Na, a former Australian Open champion who made it to world No 2 and was on hand to present the trophy.
Asia has its first No 1 of either sex, and while Osaka the tennis player was made in America, this will further embed her stardom in the land of her birth, and where her maternal grandparents still live.
She is still not entirely comfortable speaking Japanese, but then as she pointed out at the start of the victory speech, public speaking is not really her thing in any language. That she is fluent in tennis is beyond doubt, a natural talent honed in Florida’s tennis academies.
Osaka had taken herself off court following the second set and admitted there were tears at the time. ‘I told myself not to be immature,’ she said later in her deadpan manner.
It was, naturally, a far warmer atmosphere than at Flushing Meadows. ‘In New York most of the crowd was for Serena,’ said Osaka. ‘Here they were split a little bit. I felt like I didn’t want to have any regrets. I could have looked back on this and probably cried. I don’t think it was drama, the match points were on her serve. I just played a third set if you call that drama.’
Twenty-one-year-old Osaka broke Kvitova early on in the decider and went on to claim the Grand Slam title on Saturday
Kvitova won four consecutive games to take the women’s final on Saturday in Melbourne to a third and deciding set
The well-documented journey to this final of her opponent could hardly have been more different, and in some ways this match was meant to conclude a supreme tale of redemption.
Barely two years after a horrendous knife attack in her apartment, which saw her racket-wielding hand badly slashed, it was a miracle that she made it this far at all.
Kvitova almost pulled it off, and also had enough chances to have won this in straight sets had Osaka been less resolute. She became emotional on court when thanking her team ‘for sticking with me when we didn’t know I would be able to hold a racket again’.
‘It’s painful, for sure. I don’t know how long it will take me to get over it,’ said the 28-year-old, who now becomes world No 2. ‘When I look back, I did have my chances in the first set when I had 40-love on her serve. But I think I already won two years ago. So for me, it’s amazing. I think I still don’t really realise that I played the final.’
This was another excellent Australian women’s final, and completely different in nature from last year’s thriller which saw Caroline Wozniacki narrowly edge to victory over fellow counterpuncher Simona Halep. From the off they traded winners and the games rattled by with momentum shifts aplenty.
The Czech missed three break points at 3-3 and was outplayed in the tiebreak, in which she went down 7-2 and allowed her body language to become slightly negative for the only time. She got the first break of the match early in the second but was up against someone who has the same easy power.
Osaka walks from the court as she hides her face underneath her towel after losing second set to Kvitova after chance to win
Kvitova reacts during the final against Osaka during the Australian Open women’s singles final in Melbourne on Saturday
Osaka wobbled badly when she failed to capitalise on her three match points, and it took her until the second game of the decider to pull herself together, at a time when Kvitova threatened to sprint away.
The Japanese player’s ability to create angles from nowhere makes her a nightmare to play, and she forged ahead like she had done in the second set.
When it came to the second time of asking, at 5-4, Osaka looked as nerve-free as when she had beaten Williams at Flushing Meadows, serving the match out to fifteen.
It looks certain that she will win many more major titles, and eventually get used to the winner’s speeches that currently represent some kind of ordeal. ‘I forgot to smile,’ she said.
Osaka stretches to hit a return as she looked to follow up last year’s US Open success with victory at the Australian Open
The sun sets as Osaka and Kvitova played out an enthralling match at the Rod Laver Arena with both players taking a set