By Jane Voigt, Tennis With An Accent
If Thursday’s Australian Open was about falling seeds, Friday’s order of play was defined by hard-fought, razor-thin victories. Matteo Berrettini pulled off a five-set squeaker against young Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz. Amanda Anisimova edged defending champion Naomi Osaka in a stellar display of tennis from both, to reach the fourth round of the 2022 Australian Open.
“I’m grateful I could play so well today,” Anisimova told fans inside Rod Laver Arena, immediately following her 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (10-5) win. “I can’t stop smiling, even when I’m playing sometimes,” emphasizing her love for the fans. “Absolutely love it.”
The 20-year-old American saved two match points when serving at 4-5 in the third set, as both held their nerve in a match which could safely be defined as a serve-and-return battle. First-strike tennis was the order of the day, and Anisimova withstood Osaka’s firepower when it mattered most.
“Incredible fight from Anisimova,” an ESPN commentator said, as she erased the first match point.
“She [Osaka] felt she had [the shot], so she pressed too much on that backhand,” the commentator explained, as Anisimova flicked away the second match point.
After saving those match points, Anisimova nailed an ace down the tee to level the set at 5-5. The game win seemed to give the American more courage and conviction, which she displayed in a masterful match tiebreak, snatching victory from Osaka with another ace down the tee.
Anisimova plays number one seed, Australian native, and reigning Wimbledon champion Ash Barty, on Sunday in Melbourne.
“Looking forward to my next match,” Anisimova said, at the end of her on-court interview.
This is the second time Anisimova has beaten a defending champion at a Grand Slam tournament. She also took out Simona Halep at Roland Garros in 2019 and reached the semifinals, where she met Barty. She almost won. Sunday gives her a chance to settle a score.
Opportunities emerged for both Anisimova and Osaka on Friday. There was plenty of give and take in this match. The mix of skill, courage and grit had to be taken with decisiveness and poise. Anisimova grabbed that mental edge. This was her first top-20 win in nine such matches.
Anisimova seemed ready at the end of the first set to raise her game, and she did, seemingly more relaxed and willing to risk more on serves and returns of serve. She earned two break points in Osaka’s opening service game. Although she didn’t convert on those chances and eventually lost the first set, she made a clear statement of her intent to persevere. The improvement was absolutely necessary as the two players fought to keep fast-paced groundstrokes deep in the court.
Anisimova broke to go up 3-1 in the second, feathering a crosscourt under-spin backhand drop shot. The wry smile on her face revealed a youthful hint of glee in the midst of battle. Relishing the fight is part of a winning edge.
That uplift propelled her to a healthy break lead at 4-1. “Lights-out tennis at the moment for Anisimova,” the ESPN commentator announced.
The biggest test for Anisimova came at 5-3, serving for the set and having a chance to take it to three. At that point she was winning over 70% of points on her second serve, a stat that elite players rarely attain in any match, let alone a major-tournament clash against a defending champion in their first meeting. Standing her ground, she closed out the second at 6-3. That service hold offered a taste of what we saw over three full sets from Anisimova. She ended the match with 61% second serve points won and 40% of second return points won. Additionally, she outpaced Osaka by a ration of more than 2-to-1 in winners: 46 to 21. Osaka is normally tops in that category.
Anisimova reached a career high of No. 21 late in October of 2019 and came into this year’s Australian Open ranked No. 60. She’s riding a six-match winning streak, including her triumph over Osaka. Confidence grew after she won Melbourne Summer Set 2 earlier in the month. She defeated qualifier Aliaksandra Sasnovich in the final, having gotten by Daria Kasatkina (No. 23 in the world) and Sorana Cirstea (No. 38) in previous rounds. The title was only her second, but a critical development in preparation for Melbourne because she had not stepped into the winner’s circle since 2019 Bogota, her inaugural title.
Needless to say, the biggest battle Anisimova has won over the last two years of her young career is the ability to gather herself and rebuild the architecture of a life in professional tennis after absorbing the tragedy of her father’s, and coach’s, death a week before the U. S. Open began in 2019. The heart attack suffered by 52-year-old Konstantin Anisimov forced her withdrawal from the tournament. She had blazed her way to the semifinals at Roland Garros, earlier that year and was poised to build on that performance in New York.
The effect on her career was summed up clearly in a comment she made to The New York Times: “It was really hard to, like, to leave my house.”
What helped her reach the level fans witnessed on Friday against Osaka? “The only thing that has helped me is just playing tennis and being on court. That’s what makes me happy, so that’s the way it is.”
We are happy she is happy and blazing a path in Melbourne, her second fourth-round appearance in a Grand Slam event. On Sunday when she steps on court against Ash Barty, Anisimova will have to keep that need for happiness, because her task will be formidable.
Friday showed she should be up for the challenge.