When the women’s final at the Australian Open was over, Li Na did the honors in presenting the Daphne Akhurst trophy to Naomi Osaka who had just downed Petra Kvitova 7-6 (7-2) 5-7 6-4 in a dramatic, high-quality affair.
Perhaps that was fitting – China’s tennis trailblazer figuratively passing the torch to Japan’s Osaka who is one of Asia’s biggest sports stars and figures to be a major force globally, too, for many, many years to come.
She will also become the new world No. 1 on Monday, the first player from her nation to ever achieve the feat.
And Osaka sure had to show her resolve to prevail in Melbourne on Australia Day after missing out on three consecutive match points at 5-3 in the second set.
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Osaka has now matched the soon-to-be Hall of Famer Li in majors on two and did something not witnessed in the women’s game in 18 years, landing her first two grand slam titles back-to-back.
The 21-year-old is only the sixth female player in the Open Era to do so, joining Chris Evert, Evonne Goolagong, Hana Mandlikova, Venus Williams and most recently, Jennifer Capriati in 2001.
Goolagong looked on from Rod Laver Arena while Evert has been in Melbourne commentating for ESPN.
Asked why she was able to back up her maiden major when others have struggled, Osaka replied: “When I play my match, everything else is completely not in my mind anymore. For me grand slams are something you dream about playing as a kid.
“I don’t ever want to waste this opportunity. So those are the biggest motivating factors for me.”
This time Osaka was presumably able to fully enjoy the moment, unlike at the US Open in September when controversy erupted in her tussle with Serena Williams through no fault of her own.
Boos rained down from the crowd in the Big Apple during the trophy ceremony after Williams clashed with chair umpire Carlos Ramos in the second set.
A different drama back then, little to do with winners or unforced errors.
Osaka was left in tears, though on Saturday she appeared to shed tears of joy. There were no boos for either participant.
“In New York, most of the crowd was for Serena,” said Osaka. “Here it felt like they were split a little bit. Honestly when I was playing (Kvitova) and I heard the crowd was for both of us, I was very happy. At the same time I was just trying to focus on playing the match.”
Kvitova has pulled off one of sports’ greatest comebacks simply by returning to the tour after she was stabbed in a home invasion three years ago. She fought for her life and staved off the attacker with her left, playing hand. Hours of surgery followed.
Against the overwhelming majority of players, she would have been the one receiving the winners’ trophy from her good friend Li.
“It’s hurting a lot today,” Kvitova told reporters, referring to Saturday’s defeat. “I wanted to win and have the trophy. But I think I already won two years ago. So for me, it’s amazing. I think I still don’t really realize that I played the final.
“I’ve been through many, many things, not really great ones. I didn’t know if I was going to hold the racket again. I’m holding it, so that’s good.”
Hopefully there will be more opportunities for twice Wimbledon champion Kvitova to win a third major and first since that horrific ordeal.
But ultimately this fortnight belonged to Osaka.
The manner of the Japanese star’s victory was an example of her continued, impressive progress, starting with the way she bounced back after Kvitova saved those three match points to force a third.
“I was thinking that if I turn it around, probably it’s on my side,” said Kvitova.
Indeed it looked like it would all get away from Osaka, who double faulted to end the second set after two net cords went against her serving at 5-6. A bathroom break ensued.
But she broke for 3-1 in the third and hung on, despite watching Kvitova blasting her serve to save three straight break points at 2-4.
So how did Osaka forget about the second set?
“I can’t really act entitled,” she said. “To be playing against one of the best players in the world, to lose a set, suddenly think that I’m so much better than her, that isn’t a possibility.”
Adding to the drama, drops of rain began to fall as Osaka tried to serve out the contest. She was successful, ending with a service winner down the middle to cap the two-and-a-half hour battle.
Overall she struck nine aces and led the women’s event in total with 59.
Even before the third set, when she needed to elevate her game to save break points in the first – five of them – she duly produced the goods in the fifth and seventh games.
When she needed to recover quickly after missing two set points at 5-6, she also did, playing a faultless tiebreak.
How important was the first set? Osaka has now won 60 matches in a row when snagging the opening frame.
Defeats for the Czech in finals are exceedingly rare, having owned a 26-7 record entering proceedings and winning her last eight.
No one except Osaka took sets off Kvitova in Melbourne.
The final served as an extension of Osaka’s resilience this fortnight. One hurdle after another was overcome.
Twice she rallied from a set down to prevail in matches after she had only done that twice all of last season.
Both those wins came against the unorthodox styles of Hsieh Su-Wei and Anastasija Sevastova.
Away from the court, she was forced to answer questions about a “whitewashing” controversy stemming from one of her sponsors, Nissin.
Osaka and Novak Djokovic were the singles winners at the US Open and that double is still a possibility in Melbourne, since the Serb plays Rafael Nadal in a blockbuster men’s final Sunday.
The duo have combined for 31 majors.
Osaka can’t match that just yet but based on her performances at the last two majors, more such titles are on the way.