January 26, 2019
Showing immense nerve when she might have imploded, Naomi Osaka climbed another psychological mountain to win back-to-back Grand Slams.
At the US Open she had to deal with the meltdown of Serena Williams. In Melbourne it was her own inner collapse that threatened her chances.
Somehow Osaka showed the mental strength to recover and come through.
Her prize, a 7-6 (2), 5-7, 6-4 triumph, the Australian Open title, and the world’s number one ranking.
Petra Kvitova has come so far since a knife attack almost ended her career.
Back she came, time and again, to make this final so memorable.
In the end however, she didn’t quite hit her usual free-flowing heights for long enough.
The drama was so unlikely that such a script for a tennis movie would have been handed back to the screenwriter for a reality check.
Three match points for Osaka at 5-3 up in the second set. Kvitova clawed her way back from 0-40 and reduced Osaka to the brink of tears as she took us into a decider.
Three break points for Osaka to go 5-2 ahead in the third. Kvitova found a way out once more.
The Czech was still threatening to level at 4-4 when she fired an easy volley hopelessly long and wide.
By now Osaka had stopped reacting emotionally. She tried to let her racquet do the talking.
It began to rain as the younger woman served for the match at 5-4. Naomi was still determined to close out and produced a punchy forehand to ease her nerves.
Three more match points. The first squandered yet again when she hit long.
Then, with an almighty serve, it was over. Osaka had conquered her own demons, climbed back up to the summit, achieved a huge feat of mental endurance.
She crouched, holding back the tears, trying to control the overwhelming sense of relief.
For Kvitova, just being in a huge showpiece once more had been a significant step.
She said: ‘I can’t believe I just played a Grand Slam tournament. It was a great final. Well done Naomi. Congratulations on being number one as well.
‘Thank you to everyone who made this possible. To my team for sticking with me, even when I didn’t know if I would be able to hold a racquet again.’
There was a standing ovation at that point. Just for a moment, again Osaka wasn’t the story, even though she was the winner.
But this time Naomi had no superstar controversy to deal with.
Calmly and happily, she said: ‘Hello. Huge congrats to Petra you have been through so much and I am really honoured to have played you in the final.
‘Thanks to my team. Thank you everyone, I’m really honoured to have played in this final.’
Understated and engaging, Osaka is a huge icon now, particularly in Japan and America, but also the world over.
This could be the start of a new dominance in women’s tennis, beyond the era of Serena Williams. We shall see.
Let the drama of New York and Melbourne sweep us on to Paris in the springtime, for more unlikely happenings at the next Grand Slam.