The greatest tennis players generally share this common trait: They have more ways to win a point than you do. There are exceptions, of course. Pete Sampras won because you couldn’t touch his serves — first or second. No one has served better, before or since — that includes Serena Williams, though she deserves to be in the conversation. Their first serves are equal, but Pete had a ridiculous second serve. That was truly the shot which distanced himself from other servers throughout tennis history.
Most great players don’t have Sampras’s two serves, but most players generally have a Plan D to back up their Plan C if Plan B and Plan A don’t work out.
Such is the marvelous nature of the first-ever meeting between Naomi Osaka and Petra Kvitova, as they contest the 2019 Australian Open women’s singles championship, which also carries with it the World No. 1 ranking, the first time either player would reach that particular mountaintop.
It is easy to think that Osaka and Kvitova are both one-trick ponies, pure power merchants who take huge cuts at the ball and blast their opponents into oblivion. To be sure, both players are highly skilled at doing just that. Few players on tour can crack the ball harder or with more productivity than these two.
Yet, to view them as monolithic players does them a great disservice. These players are problem solvers as well.
Start with Osaka. She was a one-woman demolition crew at last summer’s U.S. Open, losing only one set in seven matches and tearing through a field which included Madison Keys and Serena Williams. However, at this Australian Open, she has won in a diametrically different manner, pulling very close matches out of the fire after getting punched in the mouth. Hsieh Su-Wei, Anastasija Sevastova, and Karolina Pliskova all drew blood from Osaka and had her in a position of difficulty. Moreover, those three players offer three distinct styles, presenting three unique puzzles Osaka had to solve. Flummoxed at times by the off-pace and mixed-spin shots of Hsieh and Sevastova, and caught off balance by Pliskova’s down-the-line shots in the second set of Thursday’s semifinal, Osaka had to make adjustments. She also had to accept the reality that she would have to walk over the hot coals of pressure.
She did both.
She waited out the storm to a degree. She picked better spots to pull the trigger on her ferocious groundstrokes. She served #ONIONS! in supremely crucial moments. At each point in those three matches, and even in a straight-set win over Elina Svitolina in the quarterfinals, Osaka encountered a clear patch of difficulty and struggle. Her ideal game plan was, for varying lengths of time, thrown back in her face by an opponent.
She overcame. That’s not a one-trick pony. Anything but.
Then consider Kvitova. In THIS tournament in Melbourne, Kvitova has become what Osaka was at the 2018 U.S. Open, but in 2018, Kvitova won five titles, four in a three-set final. She has won seven titles since the December 2016 knife attack which almost ended not just her career, but her life. Of those seven titles, six have been won in a three-set final. “P3tra,” the player with a magnetic attachment to three-set roller-coasters, developed a consistent ability to reset the dial in a third set after losing a second set. So many players lose the plot in that situation, but Kvitova is practiced at regrouping and regathering. She is an offense-first player, but her defense and court coverage keep her in points and enable to win slugfests against other big hitters.
This is a women’s final marked by two players on a first-time collision course who are changing lanes on a highway. Osaka changed from destroyer to escape artist at the same time “P3tra” was replaced by the woman who crushed the field in six matches at Wimbledon in 2014 (and narrowly defeated Venus Williams in the seventh match, a true classic).
In her six non-Venus matches at Wimbledon on the last occasion when she claimed a major title, Kvitova won 74 games and lost 26. That’s 74 out of 100 — I think you can calculate the percentage of games won there.
This year in six Australian Open matches, Kvitova’s games won-lost ledger sheet reads 73 games won, 28 games lost, or 73 out of 101.
Yeah — pretty close.
These two women — Naomi Osaka and Petra Kvitova — obviously like to play tennis in one specific way if they can help it, and if their opponent will allow it. Yet, if forced to adjust or recalibrate, they certainly can.
They certainly have.
Naturally, the challenge and beauty of this final — between two players who are one win from the World No. 1 rankings — lies in the likelihood that it won’t be easy for either woman to impose her game on the other. Problem-solving will probably be required.
Expect more lane changes on the highway to tennis heaven and the Australian Open championship.
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