MELBOURNE, January 25, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)
Naomi Osaka and Petra Kvitova have never faced each other in a match. Neither has been ranked No. 1. Neither has won the Australian Open.
All of that changes on Saturday evening Down Under as the No. 4 seed Osaka from Japan goes after her second consecutive Grand Slam title when she takes on the two-time Wimbledon champion and No. 8 seed Kvitova of the Czech Republic in the final of the 2019 Australian Open on Rod Laver Arena.
For the second consecutive Australian Open, the winner will leave Melbourne as the WTA World No. 1. Last year, it was Caroline Wozniacki’s turn as she won her very first Grand Slam title, beating Simona Halep, in a battle of No. 1 vs. No. 2. This year, it will be someone else’s turn. What started a fortnight ago with 11 players vying for No. 1, replacing Halep, has come down to just Osaka and Kvitova. While each comes into the final with an impressive resume of victories, only one will earn the No. 1 ranking – not to mention lifting the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup trophy. Winner takes all.
When Osaka, 21, beat No. 7 seed Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 in their semifinal-round match on Thursday afternoon, it meant that she has now won 59 consecutive matches when winning the first set – and she’s won her last 13 matches at the Grand Slams, including seven at last year’s U.S. Open and six here at the Australian Open. It’s the longest Grand Slam winning streak since Serena Williams won 33 straight during 2014-15.
“I’d love to say I’m that good, but I’m playing the best players in the world, and I’ve been playing three sets most of the time,” said Osaka during her post-match press conference. “It’s more like a battle of will at this point.”
Yet, with a chance at making history, her focus remains on winning just her next match.
Meanwhile, Kvitova, 28, who dominated American upstart Danielle Collins in the other semifinal, winning 7-6 (2), 6-0, made believers out of her critics after her win Thursday lifted her into her first Grand Slam final since winning Wimbledon in 2014. Afterward, she explained, “To be honest I think not very many people believe that I can (make a Slam final) 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. I’m very happy to have those few around me which is the best.”
Nadal relentless in win over Tsitsipas
When World No. 2 and second seed Rafael Nadal rolled to a 6-2, 6-4, 6-0 semifinal victory over No. 14 Stefanos Tsitsipas on Thursday night in Rod Laver Arena, it marked the fifth time the 32-year-old Spaniard had reached the finals of the Australian Open. On Sunday night, Nadal will play in his 25th Grand Slam final overall, bringing with him a 17-7 win-loss record.
At times, Nadal played ruthlessly against Tsitsipas, the 20-year-old Next Gen ATP Finals star from Greece, but always displaying passion and desire.
After the match, when Tsitsipas sat down to meet the tournament media and interpret what happened, he suggested that “it kind of felt like in a way it wasn’t tennis so much like the other matches that I played. It felt like a different dimension of tennis completely.”
Mind you, earlier this week, Tsitsipas had beaten six-time Australian Open champion Roger Federer, who had won the title the last two years.
“That’s part of the game. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose,” said Nadal during his post-match presser. “He’s young. I lost enough times to know that. Everybody needs to go through that experience. Everybody needs to live this experience.”
By the numbers
* During his Hall of Fame career, Bjorn Borg won 93 percent (16-1) of his Grand Slam semifinals. For those who have played in at least 10 Grand Slam semifinals, Borg’s winning percentage is tops. By comparison, of this year’s Australian Open semifinalists, Rafael Nadal is 25-5 (83 percent) and Novak Djokovic is 23-10 (70 percent). As for Roger Federer, he’s 30-13 (70 percent).
* Rafael Nadal has reached his seventh Grand Slam final without dropping a set. He’s done it five times at Roland Garros and once at the U.S. Open in addition to this year at the Australian Open.
* A year ago, Naomi Osaka was ranked No. 72. Now, she’s one win away from achieving No. 1.
* During the Melbourne fortnight, the average games lost per set for Petra Kvitova is an amazingly low 2.33.
What they’re saying
* “Zverev may be better ranked, but Tsitsipas is the better player.” – Goran Ivanisevic on “The Tennis Podcast” Thursday, comparing Alexander Zverev, the World No. 4, with Tsitsipas, ranked No. 15.
* “I’m just trying to think how Federer beat him so (often with a) similar game style like me. I’m trying to understand. I mean, I don’t want to lose to Rafa 10 times.” – No. 14 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, who lost to No. 2 seed Rafael Nadal 6-2, 6-4, 6-0 in Thursday’s men’s semifinals.
What they’re tweeting
* Pam Shriver (@PHShriver), ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer: “Terrific match up @AustralianOpen women’s final. Petra has never played Naomi. Collectively they are 6 sets won 0 lost in major finals. PK won 8 straight finals. NO trying to do what Jen Cap last did when winning 1st major, win next one. Will it be hardest hit women’s final ever?”
* Stefanos Tsitsipas (StefTsitsipas): “Big applause and congrats to @RafaelNadal and his whole team for bringing tennis to another dimension. His game is more than inspiring to me. I really hope to get closer next time.
“Big thanks to everyone for your support these two weeks here in Melbourne. I love this city!”
* Sascha Bajin (@BigSascha), Naomi Osaka’s coach: “Pretty speechless right now and just so proud of Naomi and our whole team!! One more to go #AusOpen2019 💪🏽🎾💪🏽”