The final week of Naomi Osaka’s season began here on Sunday with a morale-boosting reminder of the highest point of what has been a turbulent year for the 22-year-old Japanese. Nine months after beating Petra Kvitova in the final of the Australian Open to claim her second successive Grand Slam title, Osaka outlasted the 29-year-old Czech once again to make a winning start at the season-ending Shiseido WTA Finals.
Osaka’s hard-fought 7-6, 4-6, 6-4 victory took two hours and 39 minutes, which was 12 minutes more than she had needed to win their only previous encounter in Melbourne in January. While the round-robin format of the tournament means that nothing can be decided after one match, Kvitova now faces a major struggle to progress from what looks to be an especially tough section.
Belinda Bencic is in a similar situation after losing the day’s other Red Group match to Ashleigh Barty, who after winning 5-7, 6-1, 6-2 looks certain to finish the year as world No 1. The remaining members of the eight-strong field play their first matches on Monday, with Karolina Pliskova taking on Elina Svitolina and Bianca Andreescu facing Simona Halep.
It was within days of her victory over Kvitova in Rod Laver Arena that Osaka announced the shocking news that she was parting company with Sascha Bajin, the coach who had guided her to triumphs at both Flushing Meadows and Melbourne Park. Jermaine Jenkins replaced Bajin but found himself out of work last month after Osaka’s defence of her US Open title ended in the fourth round.
Since then Osaka’s father, Leonard Francois, who coached her when she was a child, has stepped into the breach. Having not reached a final since January, Osaka has won the title in both tournaments she has played since New York. However, she insists that she still needs to recruit a permanent coach.
“He’s so annoying,” Osaka laughed when asked about her father. “Oh, my God. Do you hear his on-court coaching? I can’t believe it. He runs up to the bench saying: ‘Be calm.’ That’s it. He doesn’t give me any tactics. I can’t believe this. I was so mad.
“I don’t think my dad likes watching me play live. Normally everyone knows he just walks around and gets sneak glimpses at the TV monitor. He kind of lets me do my own thing, which I like, but I feel like I need structure a little bit. If I do my own thing for too long, I feel like I need guidance or advice from someone.”
In a heavyweight showdown between two of the game’s biggest hitters, Kvitova paid a heavy price for making nine double faults, a number of them at crucial moments, while Osaka’s athleticism frequently helped her to force her opponent into mistakes.
Kvitova, appearing in the year-end finals for the seventh time, went on the attack from the start and broke serve in the opening game, but when she served at 4-3 and 40-15 the two-times Wimbledon champion made double faults on three of the next four points. Osaka saved three break points in the following game but dominated the tie-break at the end of the set, winning it 7-1 as errors flowed from Kvitova’s racket.
Another double fault on break point enabled Osaka to break back from 0-2 down at the start of the second set and when the Japanese broke again to lead 3-2 you sensed that the end might be close. Kvitova, nevertheless, responded in spirited fashion and levelled the match after Osaka missed a backhand when serving on set point at 4-5.
The deciding set turned when Kvitova played another poor service game at 1-1. A double fault took Osaka to break point, which she converted immediately when Kvitova netted a tame forehand. A further break took Osaka to 5-2 before Kvitova saved two match points in the following game and recovered one of the breaks with some spirited hitting. At 5-4, however, Osaka held her nerve, eventually securing victory with an unreturned serve.
Osaka said afterwards that she had been pleased with the way she had taken her chances. Kvitova agreed that her double faults had been costly but said she had felt the need to go for big second serves because of the power of her opponent’s returns.
Barty lost the opening set against Bencic after dropping serve in the eleventh game but quickly took control thereafter. In the second set Bencic had a problem with her left foot, for which she had on-court treatment, as Barty eased to victory. The Australian needs only to complete her next two round-robin matches to confirm that she will end the year as world No 1.
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