Naomi Osaka was ranked No. 72 a year ago. On Saturday, she’ll play for the No. 1 ranking and her second straight Grand Slam title at the Australian Open.
Riding a 12-match Grand Slam win streak, Osaka edged Karolina Pliskova today in the semifinals 6-2, 4-6, 6-4. The 21-year-old dominated the first set with her serve and groundstrokes, and punished Pliskova’s mediocre second serve. She led by a set and a break before the Czech made a run to force a third. But Osaka kept her head and closed out Pliskova on her 15th aces of the match
“I don’t necessarily think I played the best I’ve ever played,” Osaka said. “For me, what I take away from this is that I never gave up, and that’s something that I’m really proud of myself for.
“There are moments in the match where I thought, like, This is getting really close. I just thought I wouldn’t forgive myself if I had, like, a little dip or a moment of accepting defeat.”
Osaka finished with 56 winners and 15 aces, far more than the big-serving Pliskova’s three.
“I believe she played unbelievable match,” Pliskova said. “To be honest, maybe her best in the life. I don’t think she can repeat match like this. Amount of winners what she had, she just had very little mistakes. I don’t think I did actually something wrong. I had some chances, of course I had. The chances, they were not in my hands at all. There was not much what I could do.”
Earlier in the day, 2-time Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova met the hot-handed Danielle Collins. The brash 25-year-old American had stormed into her first Slam semifinal after a series of stunning wins including the destruction of former champion Angelique Kerber.
And having been within two points of beating Kvitova in Brisbane, this figured to be close. And early on it was.
With temperatures soaring into the triple digits, it was a ragged start as the two exchanged breaks early. At 4-all though, the tournament followed protocol of closing the roof once the heat stress scale went over 5 as it did. That seemed to help the bigger-serving Kvitova who has never had an affinity to the heat, and she edged out the first set tiebreaker.
The second set, though, was one-way traffic as Kvitova dominated without dropping a game to take it 7-(2), 6-0 to reach her first Grand Slam final since 2014 Wimbledon.
“It’s been a while,” Kvitova said. “It’s been five years. You know, that’s why I worked pretty hard to be back there. It just taste very great. So I’m really happy to be back there again.
“To be honest, I think not very many people believe that I can do that 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, I think. And definitely feels great. Hopefully for them, as well, for my family and for everybody who was there when I needed it.”
Collins, who lost in the last round of qualifying at the Australian Open last year, was proud of her run.
“Definitely don’t think anybody would have put their money on me to get this far in the tournament,” Collins said. “So that would probably be in there. I certainly have been a big underdog, and I think I have held that title really well and fought my hardest, and I think that can be in there.
“I think people can make it whatever they want to make it. There is a lot of positives to take away from this, and, yeah, it’s been an incredible run. Unfortunately I wish the narrative could have been different for me today, but a lot to be proud of and I think a lot to build off of.
“Petra is an incredible champion. I think there is a lot to learn off of what she does on the court. I think she went out and played fearless tennis, so I think all credit to her.”
Collins, though, wasn’t thrilled with the roof closure.
“I think that no matter what the situation is, if it’s really hot, if it’s – you know, they need to start the match the way it’s gonna finish, I think,” said Collins who grew up in Florida. “I think they do that in football, and I think it certainly changed a little bit of the rhythm in the match.
“Honestly I like playing in the heat. Don’t get me wrong, it certainly has its challenges. I grew up in Florida and am used to it being really hot all the time.
“So I kind of, yeah, embrace that very well. Indoor tennis is a different game. Certainly had its effect.”
Kvitova and Osaka have never played before. And the match is not only for the No. 1 and No. 2 rankings, but also for a first Australian Open title.
“I’ve watched her play the Wimbledon finals,” Osaka said. “I know what a great player she is. It’s definitely going to be very tough for me.”
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