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Osaka weathers Kvitova fightback to win back-to-back major titles at the Australian Open

Hannah Wilks in WTA Tour 26 Jan 2019
Naomi Osaka holds the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup after defeating Petra Kvitova to win the 2019 Australian Open (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Naomi Osaka wins the 2019 Australian Open and will be ranked world no. 1 on Monday.

The US Open champion weathered a strong fightback from Petra Kvitova, who saved three championship points in the second set, and won 7-6(2), 5-7, 6-4 to claim her first Australian Open title.

Osaka is the first woman since Jennifer Capriati in 2001 to win her first and second major titles at back-to-back Grand Slams and just the sixth woman in the Open Era to do so. 

She will be the first Asian player (as well as the first player of Haitian descent) to be ranked world no. 1 when the new official WTA rankings are released on Monday.

Osaka reacts after winning championship point (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Osaka has now won 14 Grand Slam matches in a row and has won 60 straight matches after winning the first set, breaking Kvitova's eight-match winning streak in finals.

In a first meeting between Osaka and two-time Wimbledon champion Kvitova, neither of whom had lost a Grand Slam final before, Kvitova seemed to have the edge in the battle to break serve in the first set. The Czech earned a first break point on Osaka's serve at 0-2 after a backhand return winner, but Osaka saved that and a subsequent break point despite a second serve on the latter to come through the first lengthy service game unscathed. 

Osaka immediately earned her first break point on the Kvitova serve but the Czech saved it with her favoured wide serve to set up a forehand winner. Kvitova set up 0-40 in Osaka's next service game, but was a touch conservative on return and Osaka went on to hold. 

From that point on, the dynamic of the match started to change as Osaka, who has not faced many left-handed players in her career and was taking on Kvitova for the first time, started to adapt to Kvitova's ball, shifting her return position to await Kvitova's favoured wide serve. With the Japanese-American player winning the majority of the points that lasted for more than a couple of shots, Kvitova's ability to get quick first-strike points set up with her serve was crucial for the Czech, and Osaka gradually eroded her ability to do that. 

After finding her first hold to love since the third game of the set at 4-4, Osaka had a set point on Kvitova's serve at 5-6 after she pressured a forehand error out of the Czech, but Kvitova bravely went for the same shot and made it to save the set point, then found a big ace down the T on a second set point. 

But the tie-break was all Osaka. The fourth seed took an immediate mini-break lead with a backhand return winner down the line for 2-0, then led 5-1 after an ace and a pair of forehand winners, the second to punish a tentative net approach from Kvitova. The Czech was rattled as Osaka took a 7-6(2) lead, but not for the last time during this final, she fought back, breaking Osaka to lead 2-0 in the second set. 

The final was a roller-coaster of emotion for both women (Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)
Osaka - also not for the last time - recovered her equilibrium quickly and broke straight back in a marathon game, continuing to have a far greater impact on Kvitova's serve than her opponent was able to produce on her own. Osaka reeled off two more games to lead by a break, and looked totally nerveless down the stretch as she held for 4-2, then 5-3 to put herself one game from the Australian Open title.

That swiftly became just one point as Osaka climbed to 0-40 on the Kvitova serve with some fearsome backhands. But the Czech saved all three with some fearless tennis, held for 4-5 - and then as Osaka served for the match, Kvitova played her finest returning game of the match to break for 5-5.

With the exception of one nervous double fault, Osaka hadn't done a lot wrong in her attempt to close the match out on her own serve, but the same couldn't be said for her attempt to serve to stay in the second set at 5-6. A poor service game from the fourth seed ended in a nervous double fault and Kvitova levelled up the match at one set all. 

There was a stray tear or two for the Japanese-Haitian player as she left the court after the second set - but none visible when she returned from the third. Kvitova seemingly had all the momentum, but at 0-15 on her serve at 0-1 in the decider, Osaka hit a fantastic backhand winner off her knees and went on to hold serve, stopping the run of five games against her. Osaka immediately went on to break serve, with Kvitova still unable to sufficiently adjust to Osaka's returning - she tried going down the T more often to take advantage of the central space opened up by Osaka positioning herself to anticipate the wide serve, but she simply couldn't make it often enough to force her opponent to shift back - and held for 3-1 with a forehand winner.

Kvitova continued to battle, earning a break point with a super return at 2-3, but Osaka once again found her best tennis on the biggest points, staving off the break and holding for 4-2 with yet another booming forehand winner.

Osaka gave a humble winner's speech (GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images)
It felt like history threatened to repeat itself when Kvitova saved what would have been three virtual championship points to avoid going down a double break at 3-4, but this time there would be no wavering from the 21-year-old. She held to love for 5-3, then at 5-4, hit an unreturnable serve, a forehand down the line winner and a deep central ball to force an error from Kvitova and give herself three more championship points - and finally overcame Kvitova's resistance on the second of them to win 7-6(2), 4-6, 7-5.

Kvitova, who had mounted gallant resistance despite playing her best tennis, provided the tear-jerking moment of the presentation ceremony as she thanked her team for sticking with her even when her tennis career was in doubt after suffering severe knife wounds to her left hand during a botched robbery at her home in December 2016. 'You were there every single day supporting me, which I really needed,' she said.

But the Czech, who will match her career-best ranking of world no. 2 on Monday, had already regained her perspective by her post-match press conference, telling the media: 'I wanted to win and have the trophy. But I think I already won two years ago. So for me, it's amazing.'

The day belongs to Osaka, though. In a sport in which all the biggest stars are on the shady side of 30, and in which players who break through with big Grand Slam runs often struggle to back up their success, it's so impressive to see a young woman backing up her first major victory with another immediately afterwards, especially having to adjust to so much increased pressure and expectation after her first win. Not to mention the way Osaka did it - weathering adversity, battling back, and above all being able to solve the tactical problem posed by Kvitova's wide serving without the help of anybody else on the court. 

Osaka started her winner's speech by apologizing for being bad at public speaking and ending it by worrying she'd forgotten what she was supposed to say despite reading notes beforehand, but in between she told Kvitova that it had been an honour to play her, and said the same thing to the fans: That it had been an honour to play a Grand Slam final, to play in front of them. It was an unforced note of humility that, like so much else about Osaka, rang true. She has made winning two of the biggest titles in tennis back-to-back look, not easy, but natural. What a star tennis has in Naomi Osaka.

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Osaka weathers Kvitova fightback to win back-to-back major titles at the Australian Open

Naomi Osaka will be the first Asian player to rank world no. 1 after beating Petra Kvitova 7-6(2), 5-7, 6-4 to win the 2019 Australian Open - the first woman since Jennifer Capriati in 2001 to win her first and second major titles at back-to-back Grand Slams

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