After much chopping and changing at the top the WTA rankings, the women’s tour may just have found a standard bearer for the long haul.
This Monday, 21-year-old Naomi Osaka will become the world No.1 after outlasting Petra Kvitova in the Australian Open final. After slipping up in the second set when serving for the match, Osaka eventually prevailed 7-6 5-7 6-4.
If you haven’t seen it yet, Saturday’s final is well worth a watch.
The shot-making and mental toughness of both Osaka and Kvitova was admirable. Since last year’s US Open final was overshadowed by Serena Williams’s shenanigans, it was nice to watch a championship match that was all about the tennis.
Kvitova, who demolished players throughout the tournament, could not find her supreme level for the majority of the match. In the Czech’s previous grand slam finals – (Wimbledon 2011 and 2014) – she blasted her opponents off the court with fearless, pure hitting.
But against the formidable Osaka, who has as much power as the Czech but moves a little better, the 28-year-old could only find those slice serves and fierce groundstrokes in patches.
While Kvitova’s shots may have wavered, her resilience certainly did not.
Beneath that gentle demeanour is a warrior’s soul, made all the more potent by the dreadful attack that nearly ended her professional career. I wrote a piece on Kvitova’s incredible comeback earlier this week.
Kvitova made things tricky for Osaka but the young superstar handled her opponent, the occasion and expectation with panache. The 21-year-old was visibly upset after dropping the second set from 5-3 up but reset for the third.
Osaka was simply brilliant in the decider. She broke Kvitova in the third game and held on to serve it out and make it back-to-back major triumphs. She is the first woman to win consecutive majors since Serena Williams in 2015.
The question now is: can Osaka remain at the top of the women’s game?
Recent women’s No 1’s have found it tricky to set the standard for the tour on court while managing media commitments and the requirements of sponsors off it.
Between Simona Halep’s recent stint of 48 weeks and Serena Williams’s record of 186 weeks at no.1, the WTA saw six different players top the rankings list.
Osaka certainly has the game and mentality to maintain her position but there will be plenty of pretenders to the throne.
Simona Halep, Angelique Kerber and Karolina Pliskova would love to reclaim top spot while Sloane Stephens, Elina Svitolina and Kvitova are desperate to reach the peak for the first time. And there’s also a 23-time major winner to consider.
They are tough adversaries for this young woman of Japanese-Haitian extraction, but there’s steel beneath that quirky and shy exterior.
Here are a few reasons why Osaka can stay on top.
1. She’s an outstanding front runner
Osaka has now won 60 consecutive matches after capturing the first set. That kind of consistency gives Djokovic a warm feeling.
2. She knows how to win the big ones
Amazingly, Osaka has still only won three titles but they comprise two majors and what people often refer to as the ‘fifth major’, Indian Wells. She hasn’t even started on the smaller ones yet.
3. She can and most likely will improve
Osaka finished the Australian Open as ace leader (59) thanks to that superb serve. Her ground-strokes are extremely powerful and generally consistent. Her movement is also very good. That said, she rarely approaches the net and could add more variety in rallies. Unfortunately for her opponents, there’s no reason why she couldn’t improve those parts of her game in the near future.
The 2019 women’s tour is off to a great start and it will be fascinating to track the progress of the first Asian tennis player to be ranked No.1 in the world.