Petra Kvitova has already overcome the odds by returning to tennis after she was stabbed in her home three years ago. But now the Czech is a win away from doing the near impossible – winning another major after that horrific ordeal.
After being defeated by Naomi Osaka in the US Open final when Williams called chair umpire Carlos Ramos a “thief” and accused him of sexism, Williams departed the Australian Open at the quarterfinal stage in dramatic circumstances.
Kvitova was the first to progress, seeing off the unseeded, fiery Danielle Collins 7-6 (7-2) 6-0 before Osaka edged Serena Williams’ conqueror, Karolina Pliskova, 6-2 4-6 6-4, to become the first Japanese woman to make the Australian Open final.
It is Kvitova’s first grand slam final since the stabbing in Prostejov.
“Not very many people believe that I could do that again, stand on the court and play tennis and kind of play at this level,” Kvitova told reporters. “It was just really a few of them, I think.”
Kvitova’s attacker held a knife to her throat and while fighting him off, she suffered extensive stab wounds to her left, playing hand. Hours of surgery followed.
As of yet there hasn’t been a conviction in the case.
The twice Wimbledon champion admitted it took her a while to be “confident to be alone somewhere.”
“I do remember coming the first time alone in my locker room in Prague in the (tennis club) and I came to my team and said, ‘Well it was the first time I was alone there and yeah, it was a good one today that I really felt okay.’
“It’s been a long journey.”
With the fans behind her, she hasn’t been alone in her tennis comeback.
Come Saturday, one of Kvitova or Osaka will be a debutant Aussie Open winner and duly end the reign of Simona Halep, whose 48-week stay at No. 1 concludes Monday. Osaka would become the first Japanese player to get there.
The duel between Kvitova and Osaka – she is also a fan favorite – promises to be hard hitting and the Czech, in particular, will take some stopping.
Why? She enters the final on an 11-match winning streak and her record in finals is a remarkable 26-7.
“I think it feels better knowing kind of this, that I do have a better percentage of winning than losing in the final,” she said.
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No hangover for Osaka
Osaka has admirably shown this fortnight there has been no hangover effect after she opened her grand slam account at the US Open last September, topping Williams.
Indeed Osaka became the first female player since American Jennifer Capriati in 2001 to win a first grand slam title and then make the final in her next major. She is made for the big occasion.
“The veterans from my press conferences, you guys know that I love grand slams,” Osaka told reporters. “This is a place where I think is worth all the training. When you’re little, you watch the grand slams, you watch all the players play the legendary matches here.”
She has passed each test coming her way, be it dealing with unusual game styles of her opponents or overcoming slight wobbles in matches.
Away from the court, one of her sponsors, Nissin, was forced to apologize this week when it was accused of “whitewashing” her skin tone in an ad.
“I’ve talked to them,” said Osaka, whose father is Haitian. “They’ve apologized. For me, it’s obvious, I’m tan. It’s pretty obvious. I don’t think they did it on purpose to be, like, whitewashing or anything. But I definitely think that the next time they try to portray me or something, I feel like they should talk to me about it.”
Even if the 21-year-old falls short in the final – and that is certainly not a foregone conclusion – it’s highly unlikely that she’ll stop at just one major.
Hill to climb
Thankfully for players and fans alike, the roof on Rod Laver Arena was closed for most of Thursday to provide shelter as temperatures reached around 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).
Winning this semifinal against Osaka always figured to be a harder task for Pliskova, backing up her stunning victory over Williams on Wednesday.
That encounter lasted more than two hours – far longer than Osaka’s comfortable outing against Elina Svitolina. The Czech had less recovery time than Osaka and recent history tells us that players who defeat Williams at a grand slam before a final struggle in their next encounter.
On the last 11 occasions, that player has lost nine times.
That said, Pliskova had all the momentum in the third, only to be repelled by Osaka.
The Australian Open introduced a heat stress scale from one to five to gauge Melbourne’s intermittent, sauna like conditions. Five can lead to the roof being used on covered courts.
Kvitova and Collins began outdoors with a 10-minute break scheduled between the second and third sets if it went to a decider but at 4-4, the index reached five and the roof was utilized.
Kvitova certainly didn’t mind while Collins – who is used to similar weather given she hails from Florida – said if the match started with no roof it should have finished like that.
Early deficit for Kvitova
Kvitova fell behind by a break at 3-2 too but grabbed it straight back on her fifth break attempt.
Collins, the latest unseeded women’s semifinalist at the Australian Open, somehow reached the tiebreak despite serving under 40%.
But Kvitova blew open the tiebreak and once that was done, completely relaxed. She has now won 22 straight matches at grand slams when claiming the first set.
Collins took issue with chair umpire Carlos Ramos – he of the US Open Williams-Osaka controversy – when he ordered a first serve to be replayed because the net machine inadvertently beeped in the first game of the second set.
The same thing appeared to happen prior to the world No. 35 striking her next serve yet there was no let played.
She was later broken and Kvitova ultimately cruised into her first grand slam final outside Wimbledon.
By her own admission struggling at grand slams last season – the opposite of her play at WTA events – Kvitova ended that hoodoo.
Osaka appeared to be cruising in her semifinal.
Fifty-eight straight times she had won matches when collecting the first set, so the odds swung in her favor following her early gains against Pliskova.
It got even better for Osaka when she broke for 1-0 in the second. However Osaka – who lost to Pliskova in the Tokyo final last fall – temporarily blinked and Pliskova pounced for 1-1.
Pliskova’s big serve was constantly under pressure but Kvitova’s compatriot hung on and eventually got her reward by breaking to end the second.
A two-game swing settled matters in the third.
Osaka saved three break chances at 0-1 – two by crunching backhand winners – and then broke to love as part of a 10-point run.
At 4-3, a huge ace saved another break point.
The gripping tussle ended via Hawk-Eye, Osaka challenging a rocket of a serve down the tee called wide.
Waiting for the ruling, Osaka put her hands together as if to pray. She was proved right and smiled.
Who will be smiling Saturday?