Naomi Osaka will become the first Asian player in history to reach world No.1 on Monday after battling past Petra Kvitova 7-6(2), 5-7, 6-4, to win the Australian Open.
The 21-year-old, who was ranked 72nd in the world 12 months ago, produced an admirable display against her more experienced rival in what was a roller coaster clash. Seeing a trio of Championship points come and go in the second set before coming through the decider. Kvitova is a two-time Wimbledon champion, who was playing in her first major final since 2014. Ultimately, it was youth that prevailed over experience as Osaka battled her way to the title. Hitting 33 winners, nine aces and winning 76% of her first service points. Osaka, who also won the US Open in September, is the first player to win a second grand slam straight after winning her first since Jennifer Capriati back in 2001.
“I don’t think I would have made it through this week without you guys. Behind a tennis player is a team and I’m really grateful.” Osaka said in tribute to her own team afterwards.
In what was the first ever tour meeting between the two players, there was little to distinguish between the two throughout the opening set. Osaka’s fierce serve was matched by an array of deep-hitting shots from Kvitova. Both players had their chances to grab a breakthrough, but neither was able to prevail. At 3-3, Osaka was on the verge of getting broken after falling behind 0-40, before winning five consecutive points to nudge ahead 4-3. Her mini comeback in the match was aided by some tentative play from across the court. Meanwhile, Kvitova also illustrated her fighting spirit by saving a duo of set points whilst trailing 5-6.
It wouldn’t be until the tiebreak where Osaka would be able to dismantle her opponent. Two points into the tiebreaker, a blistering backhand return down the line elevated the Japanese player to a 2-0 lead as she rapidly gained momentum. A few points later, a somewhat ordinary shot from Kvitova was punished by Osaka, who slammed a winning forehand past the Czech to extend her lead to 5-2. The first set was then secured with the help of back-to-back Kvitova errors.
Despite her young age, Osaka has already established herself as a strong frontrunner on the women’s tour. Prior to the Melbourne final, she has won 59 consecutive matches after winning the opening set. However, Kvitova refused to take no for an answer as she increased her level to storm to a 2-0 lead at the start of the second. Prompting the first sign of frustration from Osaka.
Facing some stern pressure, a relentless Osaka hit back with interest by breaking an erratic Kvitova two consecutive times. Edging to a game away from the historic win, Osaka’s momentum was halted and then destroyed by a fiery Kvitova. The Czech saved three consecutive match points to revive her title dreams. Prompting even more frustration from Osaka, who was close to tears on the court. Suddenly Kvitova was the one in control as she broke an error-stricken Osaka service game to love to force a decider.
Locked in a mental battle, as well as a physical one, a once smiling Osaka regrouped to break three games into the decider with the help of a backhand cross-court winner. Prompting a sense of relief among her entourage in the crowd. Continuing to weather the storm, the 21-year-old nudged closer to the finish line of what was a dramatic encounter. To add to the drama, speckles of rain started to fall on the Rod Laver Arena as Osaka served for the match for a second time. Nevertheless, it didn’t stop her. A perfectly placed serve down the centre of the court forced the error from Kivotva to reward her the title. Prompting a somewhat subdued celebration from the soon to be world No.1.
“I’ve always wanted to play you, you have been through so much and honestly, I would have not wanted this to be out first match-up.” The new Australian Open champion said in a tribute to Kvitova.
“You’re really amazing and I’m honoured to have played you in a grand slam.”
kvitova’s tears of joy
Whilst missing out on the trophy, it was evident how much the occasion meant for Kvitova. Two years ago, she was left facing the prospect of never playing tennis again after a knife attack by an intruder resulted in extensive damage to her left playing hand. She had to undergo four hours of surgery and missed five months of the tour. Even now, Kvitova still hasn’t got the full feeling in one of her fingers.
“It’s a great day, I can’t believe I played in the final of a grand slam again. It was a great final.” An emotional Kvitova reflected during the trophy presentation. “You played well Naomi and congratulations on becoming world No.1, as well.”
“It’s been a great tournament for me. It’s a huge honour to hold this (runner-up) trophy. It’s been a while since I was in a final.”
Like Osaka, she also paid tribute to her team that supported her through her absence.
“Thank you for sticking with me, even if we didn’t know if I would be able to hold a racket again. You were there every single day supporting me and staying positive, which I really needed.” She said.
As the new No.1 player, Osaka is the youngest person to have held that position since Caroline Wozniacki back in 2010. She will also surpass the $10 million mark in prize money earning as a result of her latest win.
Heather Watson: My Losing Streak Was Really Depressing
Heather Watson described how it felt during her long losing streak and how she turned it around at an ITF event in Japan.
Heather Watson did not win a single match during a four-month stretch between January and May. Unsurprisingly, she was feeling pretty down during that run.
“It was really depressing,” the Brit said. “I thought you know what, I was trying my best to stay positive and I thought this is going to be the week, like this is it, I’m going to win a match. Nope. And it just was going on for months. And it came to a point where I was thinking: Why am I trying every day? Why am I going to these tournaments?”
She continued, “Then, when I went to Japan, I lost first round there. I played really well in that match, but the girl had nothing to lose and played a really good match.”
“It was a really tough time but I’m proud of myself for sticking with it and getting out of it now because right now, I really can’t complain. I’m happy in life, on the court, off the court and happy with my game.”
Joy in Japan for Watson
The turning point for Watson came during her second ITF tournament in Fukuoka, Japan. She won easily in the first round, and suddenly her confidence returned.
“I think dropping down a level and playing the ITFs in Japan (was the key),” the Brit said. “As soon as I won one match, I won the tournament. I just needed that one match to give me confidence.”
She continued, “I’ve done that a few times now in my career, drop down to ITF level, which is still really tough, but for me it was literally just about getting one win.”
After she re-discovered the winning habit, Watson built up her confidence step by step. She notched another two victories in a third tournament in Japan. Then she got through a round of French Open qualifying.
The Brit followed up those results with a couple of good wins on the grass at Surbiton, before she was knocked out in the first round of Nottingham by Maria Sakkari.
Watson unlucky to lose to Strycova
By the time she got to Birmingham, Watson felt ready to beat Barbora Strycova in her first round match. Unfortunately for the Brit, she lost a tight three-set encounter that could easily have gone her way instead.
“I was really upset when I came off the court today because I felt I was the better player most of that match,” the World No.122 reflected. “But my coach just put it into perspective for me. He got me thinking back to some of the tournaments we were at earlier on: Indian Wells, Miami, where I could literally barely put balls in the court. When he said that, it made me laugh.”
Despite the loss, Watson is encouraged by her performance. “I was really happy with my level today,” she said. “There wasn’t much in it at all and I thought it was a high-quality match so I am feeling like my game is there and it should come together.”
Watson loves British crowds
There is no better place to play well than in front of a home crowd, and the Brit relishes this time of year. “I really don’t feel much pressure when I play at home,” she said. “When I think about it, I’m really excited, really happy to be playing on grass at these tournaments, not having to fly anywhere and having home crowd support.”
She continued, “I don’t know whether it’s because of the surface, whether it’s because I’m at home and I’m happy, or what it is, but I always feel like this time of year I do play some of my best tennis and I think that’s shown in my results in previous years at Wimbledon and Eastbourne. Unfortunately not here yet, but maybe next year.”
Margarita Gasparyan: I Can Beat More Top Players
Margarita Gasparyan spoke about her growing belief that she can beat the best, her return to top form and her new-found love of grass.
Margarita Gasparyan believes she can beat more of the best in the world after she recorded an impressive 6-3 3-6 6-4 win over Elina Svitolina at the Nature Valley Classic in Birmingham.
The Russian, 24, played some excellent tennis at times during the match and she is confident that her style can cause problems for other high-ranked players in the future.
“I’m really happy that I won today because it was a really important victory,” Gasparyan said. “I played against a really great player and I think I’m playing really well.”
It was the Russian’s second win over a top ten player after she beat Kiki Bertens in a tight three-set match in Linz in October last year, and she is definitely starting to understand what is required to be successful in these high-profile encounters.
“With very victory like this you feel more confident in yourself,” Gasparyan said. “You just feel like you can beat more and more of this kind of player.”
Gasparyan back to her best after lengthy injury lay-off
In many ways, it is remarkable that the Russian is even still playing tennis after she endured a long spell on the sidelines with a knee injury.
It took three surgeries to repair the damage. However, while it has taken Gasparyan a long time to feel like she is back to her best, she is convinced she is there now.
“It was really, really tough (to come back from the injury),” the World No.62 said. “I was away a long time, almost two years, but I’m happy that I’m here now and I can compete.”
She continued, “Now (I’m established again) I have different goals and I just want to win as many matches as I can. I was 41 in the world. But now I want to be higher. So I just want to work hard and then I hope I will achieve my goals.”
Gasparyan feels comfortable on grass
Due to her injury, Gasparyan had only played six grass court matches on the WTA tour before this year. However, that inexperience on the surface has barely hampered her at all and she believes it is because grass suits her game.
“I enjoy grass more than clay court,” the Russian said with a smile. “The rallies are faster and it suits my aggressive game.”
She continued, “I haven’t played a lot of tournaments on grass, but even now after some years away I’m feeling really good, so it’s not like I have to play a lot of tournaments to feel nice on the grass.”
Gasparyan is also encouraged by the way she handled the key moments against Svitolina. “I was confident (at those times) because I like the shots that I’m hitting and my ball is going deep.”
The Russian’s next task will be tricky one against either Ekaterina Alexandrova or French Open quarter-finalist Petra Martic. But her confidence is high and she will feel good about her chances whoever she faces.
Elina Svitolina: I Don’t Have Expectations At The Moment
After she was knocked out in the first round, Elina Svitolina explained why she does not have high hopes for the grass court season.
The last few months have been frustrating for Elina Svitolina. She has been troubled by a knee injury since February and has not been able to play as much tennis as she would like.
This has led to a very mixed set of results for the Ukrainian. She played through the pain for a while and made it to three successive Premier semi-finals in Doha, Dubai and Indian Wells.
Sensibly, the World No.7 then decided not to push her luck and she took a six-week break to rest her knee after she was knocked out early in Miami.
When Svitolina returned to the tour, she lost in the first round in Madrid and Rome, so she was very short on match practice going into the French Open.
Despite that, the Ukrainian produced a good performance to beat Venus Williams in the first round, then she progressed to the third round by default after Kateryna Kozlova withdrew. Unfortunately for Svitolina, she did not get any more match practice in Paris as Muguruza defeated her in straight sets.
Svitolina not getting her hopes up due to lack of match practice
That loss to the Spaniard meant the World No.7 came to Birmingham having played just four matches since 23 March. It is far from ideal preparation, and it explains why she has set the bar low for the grass court season.
“I don’t have expectations,” Svitolina said. “For me it is just playing one tournament, one match at a time. I want to win as many matches as I can. If I don’t, maybe it’s not meant to be, but I will try my best.”
She continued, “I try to work really hard each day on and off the court to be ready for each event and each match, but I’m not really thinking too far ahead. Health is the priority for me now.”
The Ukrainian lost 6-3 3-6 6-4 to Margarita Gasparyan in the opening round, and she is keen to move on quickly as quickly as possible. “Of course it’s a little bit disappointing to lose the first match on a different surface,” she said. “It doesn’t give you much confidence. But also I’m trying not to take away the confidence I got from Roland Garros, which was not too bad.”
Ultimately, Svitolina is going to have to be patient while she waits for her form to return. All she can do in the meantime is work hard on the practice court and keep playing matches, and the WTA tour will soon see back at her best. She is too good a player to be stuck in the doldrums for long.
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