One hundred and twenty-eight women have tried, one hundred and twenty-six have failed. The title of 2019 Australian Open Champion, will go to either Petra Kvitova or Naomi Osaka – and with it, the distinction of being the number one player in the world.
Two players at very different stages of their careers, but in many ways similar, together they are set to provide a fitting end to a thrilling tournament. Read on for our preview of the 2019 AO Women’s Singles Final.
A match that will produce a new top dog in women’s tennis, this match already had significance beyond the silverware, but truly, it extends even further than that.
For Osaka, this would mark her second major on the trot, which would be the first time that’s happened since Serena Williams won four straight from USO 2014 to Wimbledon ’15. At just 21 years of age, there would simply be no denying her place as a superstar of women’s tennis, and perhaps the biggest female athlete of the moment in all world sports.
For Kvitova, this would represent one of the greatest sporting comebacks of all time. If you can stomach it, go and look at the pictures of her dominant left hand in the wake of the 2016 knife attack at her home in the Czech Republic. The physical trauma – to say nothing of the mental – she has endured, only to get back to this point is remarkable. Of course win or lose this story is no less remarkable, but a major title would make it more memorable.
Yet to drop a set this tournament, Kvitova has been nothing short of a one-woman wrecking ball. The serve is looking as strong as ever, while the erraticism that plagued her baseline play in recent times has given way to some of the sweetest ball-striking you’ll ever see. If there’s any knock against her, it’s that her opponents haven’t been of the highest calibre rankings-wise, with quarterfinal opponent Ash Barty her only seeded foe so far.
In contrast, Osaka has been made to seriously work to get to this point. Taken the distance against Su-Wei Hsieh, Anastasija Sevastova and Karolina Pliskova, the Japanese hasn’t always been able to find her best stuff, but managed to pull it out against some tricky opponents anyway. Against Kvitova she’s sure to face more adversity, so those experiences might end up working in her favour.
Their first career meeting, little is for certain between Osaka and Kvitova, and while the latter comes in a slight favourite with the bettors, there’s potential for this to go in several different directions.
First things first though, if you were hoping for a match full of long rallies with plenty of subtle nuance in tempo, direction and spin, this isn’t the match for you. In all facets of their games, Osaka and Kvitova are two of the WTA tour’s preeminent power players, and that means they’ll spend less time trying to outmaneuver each other, and more time trying to blow them off the court.
That said, this won’t be a mindless slugfest, it’s just that with the weapons each player possesses, it will be more like the blitz variation of chess. If you don’t employ measured aggression to create a winning position quickly, you can be sure the other will.
So how will those winning positions be created? Well, it comes down to who can best exploit their matchup advantages. For Kvitova, the first big one is that as a lefty, she’ll be hitting her forehand into Osaka’s weaker backhand side, where if put on the stretch, the Japanese is more likely to merely keep the rally in neutral than go on the attack, and that will create opportunities for the Czech to take charge, either with a down-the-line forehand or a massive backhand of her own. Secondly, Osaka’s second-serve has been consistently sub-par this tournament (per Tennis Abstract’s Jeff Sackmann, she has the biggest drop in speed between first and second serves of any woman in the final 32, and is 29th in average speed), and that means that if Osaka’s first serve isn’t working, Kvitova will be able to tee off.
However, cracking the Osaka code is not quite that simple. Her first serve is among the best on tour, and she’s made enough of them to dig herself out of any trouble so far this tournament. In rallies, her movement and unparalleled ability to strike heavy balls while on the back-foot means Kvitova will have to play very close to the lines to finish points, while her forehand is simply superior to the Czech’s, and more than any other shot from either player, she can use it to create instant offense.
Perhaps just as importantly though, Osaka might have an edge in the mental game too. Kvitova’s lack of adversity this tournament could work against her if Osaka gets going, and as we saw two weeks ago in the Sydney final against Ash Barty – where she was broken twice serving for the match – nerves can get the best of her. In contrast, even when Osaka’s game isn’t consistent, her demeanour is, and it’s not like we have to go back that far to see how well she can handle the grand slam final stage.
Osaka in three. My toughest final to predict in recent memory, there really isn’t an outcome that’s off the table. Both players have the game to run away with it in straights, but are just as likely to trade hot-streaks to a 6-1, 1-6, 6-1 affair, or keep it tight for three straight tiebreaks. In the end, I think Osaka’s ability to better handle the emotional rollercoaster will prove the difference, and make her your 2019 Australian Open Women’s Singles Champion.