Tennis finally got it right.
In New York at the US Open, a child wonder, an innocent, had won. But what a hollow victory it had been. Everything had gone terribly wrong. An icon was roaring, the crowd was livid, an ump’s role came under scrutiny. And a kid’s triumph was joyless – Naomi Osaka was weeping. Sports had failed. Instead of giving us a definitive result, it gave us chaos.
Now, could tennis sort things out and right this wrong?
Frank Sinatra sang that love is lovelier the second time around. Kelly Pipa quipped, “Children are like pancakes. You sort of ruin the first one, and you get better at it the second time around.” In tennis there has been one singular “second chance” narrative. After Jana Novotna failed terribly at the 1993 Wimbledon and wept, she came back to win five years later.
Today, in her matchup tonight, the question was whether Osaka could come back, bask in Grand Slam glory, and receive the adulation that had been deflected in New York.
To do so, she would have to down two-time Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova. Truth be told, the eminently likable assault survivor had recently been snuffing out one dream after another as she downed American teen Amanda Anisimova, Aussie darling Ash Barty, and US cinderella Danielle Collins.
On a tear, Petra had won six finals in a row and was on an 11-match win streak. Yes, the lefty hadn’t faced a top-ten player. Still, she stormed through the draw without dropping a set or facing a real crisis.
Osaka hadn’t. Su-Wei Hsieh had almost beaten her, and she’d had three matches that had approached the two-hour mark. But, of course, Osaka has been making her mark of late. Never mind that last year at this time she was No. 72 – here she had the fastest serve and the most aces of anyone. If she won she would become the first Asian No. 1 ever, the first Japanese player to win a Slam, the first woman since Jennifer Capriati in 2001 to win a second Slam right after winning her first Slam, and certainly tennis’s greatest breakout star since Maria Sharapova in 2004.
But Osaka had a losing 3-5 record against lefties, and in the first set Kvitova didn’t hesitate to show her “big babe” power brilliance as she blasted angled serves, well-disguised power forehands and nasty backhands.
Kvitova’s storm forced Osaka to step up, as the Haitian and Japanese 21-year-old saved five first-set break points. Here was a scintillating battle to embrace. The depth of shots was astounding. The first-strike tennis was relentless. The rallies were brief but glorious – such fierce combat. At 5-5, a stunning 18-stroke point had both players on the run, until, in the longest and best rally of the match, Kvitova won with a let chord winner.
But in the first-set tiebreak, Osaka’s power, athleticism, speed, defense and focus came to the fore. Kvitova blinked. The Czech didn’t check out, but her level dropped. Petra, whose comeback inspires, still has numbness in two fingers as a result of the wretched home invasion attack she suffered in 2016. And, may we note, she has an Achilles heel.
Her forehand can go on vacation. And it did in the tiebreak. Plus, she was distracted. Osaka took advantage of the Czech dip and raced to a 7-2 tiebreak win to claim the first set. And you don’t want to get behind the Naomi express. She had won 59 straight matches when winning the first set.
But so what? Kvitova bravely came back and scored the first break of the match over a suddenly flustered Osaka. But Naomi countered by hitting great returns and superbly timed groundies to break back and surge to a 5-3 lead with three match points in hand. Surely, unlike Serena, who failed to convert four match points against that other Czech, Karolina Pliskova, Osaka would be able to claim the match. But Kvitova stepped up with a steely nerve and saved all three match points – just amazing. Within a matter of days, Floridians Osaka and Williams together had squandered seven match points. On Laver Arena there was a whiplash change in the compelling battle.
Osaka should have been celebrating. Instead, she swiped at the air. Her body language was glum – and when Kvitova took the second set 7-5, Naomi put her hands to her ears as if to block out the crowd and then left the court in tears with a towel over her head. But, noted broadcaster Steve Pearce, “If she could survive playing Serena on Ashe Stadium, she could handle this,” and hit re-set.
Didn’t we say this match was all about getting a second chance?
To Osaka, playing tennis is all about Grand Slams, and she didn’t want to waste her opportunity. Yes, she was disappointed that she hadn’t been able to convert those match points. But she wasn’t beside herself. After all, she reasoned, they were on Kvitova’s serve, and Petra is supposed to hold serve.
Then in the third set, as Kvitova’s footwork faltered, Naomi not only let her incredible shot-making do the talking, she blocked everything out and showed her uncanny emotional intelligence. Later, Inside Tennis asked her, “How do you manage to be so calm?” She offered a surprisingly aware and appreciative response, explaining that her confidence “relates back to when I went to Haiti…[After that] you don’t complain about something since you are in a situation that’s way better than other people”
Soon things were way better for Osaka in the match as she won four games in a row and raced to an historic, inspiring 7-6, 5-7, 6-4 win. So forget the boos and catcalls of New York. Happy Aussies joined Japanese backers with their gold fans and Rising Sun flags and bathed the young, athletic wonder in ecstatic cheers. A kind of group love-in broke out. Yes, as at the US Open, Osaka hid behind her visor. But now there was no fear, no bittersweet emotions, no confusion. No one had to comfort her. Still girlish in some ways, Naomi has trouble praising herself. Still, she tried to relish the sweetness of her triumphant moment.
Soon the two most endearing, funny and radiant players in recent tennis history were on the podium – Naomi and China’s Li Na. Osaka long has admired Asian players – Li, Kei Nishikori and Kimiko Date. Osaka and Li are Asia’s preeminent women sports stars. But the Hall of Fame bound Li is retired. Osaka’s career is just unfolding, and she has plenty of things she could improve. Writer Richard Evans noted, “She’s growing up before our eyes and she’s handling it all with aplomb.”
Osaka’s mind-boggling success invited a torrent of questions. “What does it mean to be No. 1?” “How does it feel to be the voice of Asian tennis?” “Do you understand that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will make you the face of those games?” In response, she quipped, “Yikes…for their sake I hope they don’t do it.”
Then the winner of two consecutive Slams was asked if she could win “the Naomi Slam” – four straight majors. She shot back, “Do you know that the next Slam is the French Open on clay [her off surface]?” and then last year’s Indian Wells winner told us that her next goal is to prevail at both Indian Wells and Miami, back to back.
This night was not perfect. With one of her whimsical expressions, Naomi confided that when she was on the podium she forgot to smile. But, not to worry, she almost certainly will get another chance to correct that lapse.
After all, as tennis proved on this truly joyful Australian night, in the end our sport is pretty good at getting things right. Or, as that singer and sage Mr. Sinatra told us, “Love is lovelier the second time around.”