February 6, 2019,

To participate in some things in life, you have to be a grown up.

Like drinking. Which often makes you act, well, less grownup.

You don’t have to be a grown up to win a professional tennis Grand Slam Championship.

Super star Maria Sharapova did it at 17. The greatest female player of all time Serena Williams was 17 when she won her first Grand Slam title at the 1999 US Open, defeating then world number one Martina Hingis.

Heck, Tracy Austin, Martina Hingis and Monica Seles all did it at 16.

What sets Japan’s Naomi Osaki apart from the rest are the circumstances in which she not only won one, but two Grand Slam championships in a row.

During that arduous journey, she really grew up. Right before our eyes.

She had to be a grownup.

That takes a level of maturity that goes well beyond her tender 21 years.

If you are a tennis fan of any kind you already know in great detail what happened at the 2018 US Open Finals in her win over Serena Williams and the controversy between Serena and Chair Umpire Carlos Ramos that completely over shadowed her victory and reduced her to tears in front of millions.

Still, Naomi got through it.

So as she headed into the finals of the 2019 Australian Open, her maturity and growth was accelerating right before our eyes as she had to win some excruciating matches to get there.

Peanuts, popcorn and an organ grinder standing alongside a monkey in a purple and yellow suit with sparklers on his head was all that was missing in her Round of 32 match against Taiwan’s top female player in Hsieh Su-Wei.

At a Grand Slam tournament, you only need to go to the circus once.

Hsieh performed a grand circus act on Naomi complete with unorthodox lobs and drop shots and mercifully Naomi survived that mind boggling match so that we could see her semi-final match against Karolina Pliskova which in terms of excitement and high level tennis delivered the goods and surpassed expectations.

This is why we watch the Australian Open.

Her match against Karolina, who previously came from behind at 1-5 in the third set to defeat Serena Williams in the quarter finals, was an excruciating test of wills.

Listening to thoughts around the water cooler, some felt that Naomi would prefer to play Karolina over a possible revenge seeking Serena who wanted to prove that referee interference was a factor in her loss to Naomi in New York.

Maybe.

Once Karolina stepped onto the courts, early on we could see that Naomi was in for another massive struggle and it would take not only skill but maturity as well to get her through what would be a brutal semi-final contest.

Naomi would win 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 and we would describe it as out lasting the Czech Republic star.

So entering the finals against another resilient Czech star in Petra Kvitova, who arguably was the sympathetic and actual odds maker’s slight favorite to win the championships, for Naomi to win, it was going to take a level of maturity far beyond the average 21 year old.

As we know, Naomi Osaka is not the average 21 year old.

Good for her. Here, she is going to need every ounce of that unique clarity.

Ms. Kvitova has won a remarkable 26 of the 33 finals she has played in, including two at grand-slams. In fact she has not even dropped a set in the two previous major finals she has played in.

These two players have never faced each other before.

Naomi is starting to believe more is herself. She wants to win a Grand Slam again in a very bad way. No distractions. No party time. She describes herself as Ghost. Most still don’t know or recognize her.

We do recognize her as the reigning US Open Champion.

The key we’re told is that when you are in these big matches, keep moving the legs. That’s what goes first when you are nervous.

This will be a battle between two power players. They tend to end the points in one to five shots. Typically they don’t engage in long compelling baseline battles.

Naomi plays her best tennis when she is peaceful and calm.

The stakes are extremely high. The winner of this January 2019 match will be the new number one player in the world.

Fortunately for both stars, after two days of extreme heat, this championship day is very pleasant.

Naomi will start the serving and in a demonstration of initial warmup rust or nerves double faults. Then she comes back with two big serves winning two points in a row.

First game goes to Naomi, 1-0.

Kvitova seems very comfortable. Serves big and wins 4 points to none. 1-1.

Naomi is serving well and true to form, the points are ending quickly. Punctuates with an aces. 4 points in a row as well. 2-1.

This is the first long rally and it goes to Naomi who gets Kvitova off balance and directs it down the line.

Kvitova’s serves are heating up. There is little difference between the speed on her first and second serve. Using it to perfection 2-2.

Her returns are improving as well. Now she has Naomi down 0-2. Can she be on the verge of a break? Osaki serves big and wins the point and the next as well. Kvitova, still finding the range, smashes a return for a break point. Naomi comes up with a big point again.

Naomi’s second serve doesn’t have the speed comparable to her first and Kvitova is making her pay for it. Second break chance. Naomi once again comes up with a big serve. Naomi’s foot speed is incredible

It is a tenuous 3-3 and Naomi is serving like she is starting to feel Kvitova’s pressure.

She needs to make more first serves. Her second serve is getting her into trouble. Three break points for Kvitova. Naomi staves off two with her angles and ground strokes. Up to this point Kvitova had 4 chances to break. She hits the next points off the court. Back to deuce. She hits another out again. Her game seems to be getting a little sloppy.

Naomi makes her pay with a powerful ground stroke and holds at 4-3.

Kvitova takes her turn to serve and does so with a passion. Holds easily, now 4-4.

Naomi returns the favor with a brilliant 4 points in a row hold. She now goes ahead 5-4. This is significant because she has struggled on her serves and thus far has gotten away with it.

It should only get better from here.

If Naomi can win this first set, history is on her side. She has won 59 straight matches if she wins the first set.

Kvitova hits her first double fault. Still she has great touch as well as power. As we’ve seen during this long tournament, she has a very well-rounded game. Proof of that is how she continues to drop shot Naomi to perfection. 5-5.

Kvitova is incredibly effective as well when winning the first set with a record of 90-11.

Naomi’s power hitting is keeping Petra off balance, lifting her game with strategically angled ground strokes. Kvitova doesn’t back down, including having a long rally that she wins when her shot clips the net. Naomi however has the last word. 6-5.

This is a very intense game as Naomi begins to get Kvitova on the run and creates both a break and set point. Kvitova answers by going big on the second serve. The intensity has risen with Kvitova screaming after each point won. She gets herself out of trouble. Tied at 6-6.

Time for a tie break.

Naomi wins the first point but it is the return of serve down the line that has her up 2-0. Naomi is now finding the angles and leads 4-1. She executes another great down the line shot after a middle of the court drifter from Kvitova. Now leads 5-1.

After that colossal first set struggle, this appears to be too easy.

She then makes more adjustments and takes the tie-breaker 7-2.

Will history hold true? If Naomi wins the first set…

Kvitova is not one to go away. If there is anyone who is still in a match and can go to three, it is this resilient Czech Warrior.

She wins the first game of the second set 1-0.

Naomi tries to stay steady and continue the momentum of the first set against the slightly favored Kvitova.

Kvitova begins to hit big and gets the second set’s first break point. Osaka uses the angles and survives the first potential breaker.

Another ground war ensues and Kvitova hits one deep that Naomi probably should have challenged but doesn’t. She eventually regrets it as Kvitova breaks with a big shot. It’s now 2-0 for the two time Wimbledon champion.

Kvitova has a chance to go up 3-0 but Naomi is relentless in pushing her and now this important games keeps going back and forth until Kvitova double faults. Can Naomi convert?

She does when Kvitova hits the ground stroke back into the next.

Back on serve, it’s Kvitova 2-1 with Naomi to serve.

The next game is a battle in attrition but Naomi stays ahead and holds. Now 2-2.

Osaka can feel the moment but can she seize it? In this mental engagement there appears to be cracks in Kvitova’s armor. After going up 2-0 in the second set she is now hanging on for dear life and Naomi is starting to hit the better shots.

She breaks. She’s now up 3-2 and is set to serve.

Naomi oddly plays two loose points and is down 0-30. The US Champion is resolved and pounds in two great serves to be back at 30-30. Uncharacteristically Kvitova gets sloppy again and hits a number of shots way off the baseline.

Naomi holds at 4-2.

Kvitova seems a step slower and is playing with less intensity. Her unforced errors are creeping up as she continues to hit balls out. It is one thing if Naomi was hitting great winners, and she is, but this is more about Kvitova’s game sliding.

Petra finally collects herself by painting the line with a fierce groundstroke, lets out an even fiercer scream and holds at 3-4.

Naomi is still playing confidently, literally continuing to broaden her range of maturity as the match progresses. If she can hold on, she will be the first woman since Jennifer Capriati to win her first two majors back to back.

She does hold here at 5-3.

And to think that she was number 72 in the world just one short year ago.

Here we go. Drum roll.

Naomi starts well and has 3 championship match points. We can see her animated and excited as she has a chance to close out the match. The roar of the crowd is rising as well.

The Japanese star crouches with an intense unforgettable intensity to her eyes, ready to return serve and win the 2019 Australian Open.

Kvitova is resolved. Very resolved.

She fights off the first match point. Then another, and another.

Petra eventually fights all of them off.

Strong stuff indeed. Down 0-40 and Petra comes back and wins the game. She is still in the fight at 4-5.

You can literally feel the wind evaporate in Naomi’s sails. She looks despondent. This match should be over but it isn’t.

Naomi had triple match points, didn’t convert and now seems to be thinking too much. Surprisingly the usually previously unflappable Naomi is starting to go off the rails making unforced errors.

To everyone’s shock Naomi loses the game and they are tied at 5-5.

The next game is a back and forth battle. Naomi gains a little bit of composure but Kvitova is a true road warrior. She can smell emotional instability. This is an incredibly odd turn of events.

The trick for Naomi is to remember that even though the set is sliding, she is still ahead in the match. At this point, with a set in her pocket, she is still the winning player but it is starting not to feel like it.

She hits what appears to be a winning shot, Kvitova challenges it and the call is reversed and called out.

You can literally feel the confidence draining out of Osaka. She is starting to unravel. To some degree she is in disbelief that she is still out on the court.

So are we.

Naomi’s shots have changed. Her unforced errors are rising. This is a stunning turn of events.

Naomi has an absolute meltdown and Kvitova takes the second set 7-5.

Stunning and unbelievable are understatements. Naomi is absolutely shocked and so is the Australian crowd which have gone eerily silent.

We hate to say it but this reminds us of when she played Madison Keys and emotionally collapsed at the 2016 US Open when she led 5-1 in the third set and eventually lost.

Naomi at this point does something very, very grown up. She places a towel over her head and quietly walks off of the court.

“Maturity is the ability to think, speak and act your feelings within the bounds of dignity. The measure of your maturity is how spiritual you become during the midst of your frustrations.”… Samuel Ullman

It was probably a good idea to leave the court and collect herself. She must try something different.

Once the fight resumes, Kvitova pounces on Naomi’s downward mood and takes the first game of the third set 1-0.

Now Kvitova is standing as the winning player.

There is a sense that if Naomi can’t quickly stabilize this could go south. Deep. Fast.

You don’t get the feeling that Petra will out hit her, but Naomi will under hit herself right out of this.

Mercifully she stabilizes and holds at 1-1. Still she is obviously thinking about those 3 match points and displays a dour look.

Are the ghosts of Madison Keys past twirling around in her head like Sugar Plum Fairies?

Naomi is a fighter and in any long term fight you will get second chances and the normally steely resolved Kvitova does just that. She lets Naomi back in the match and Naomi breaks her to go up 2-1.

Unbelievable.

Though her results are better, you can’t tell it by looking at Naomi’s face.

She plays better and Kvitova a little worse and Naomi goes up 3-1.

Startling.

Though Naomi is up 3-1, you can’t help but feel that Kvitova is not remotely going away. She doesn’t and wins three points and now is only down 2-3.

Naomi is fighting it out one point at a time. We wish that she would smile more and do a little screaming herself but her emotions are at a flat line. It appears she is doing that on purpose. Don’t get too high because you run the risk of going to low.

Playing one point at a time is a good thing. Naomi goes up 4-2.

It is Petra’s turn to serve.

She stumbles and is down 0-30. Naomi finally lets out a scream. It’s premature. Not immature. Just pre.

Down 0-40 Osaka has a chance to seize control again.

But she doesn’t.

It is as though Osaka is waiting for Kvitova to make a mistake as opposed to taking it to her. That is not a wise strategy. Petra raises her game and reels of 5 points in a row including two aces.

It is 4-3 Naomi but her demeanor and body language is still concerning.

She is ahead but doesn’t act like it.

Hopefully it is a poker face.

Expressionless, emotionless and all, Naomi holds serve. Even when Kvitova sprays the last ball out, Naomi says nothing.

No screaming here.

It is Kvitova’s turn to serve and she does so masterfully. She holds at 4-5.

Well, it is still on Naomi’s racquet. Can she have a short memory and forget those 3 match points?

The roof is starting to close as the rain drops outside fall. Naomi’s competitive mind needs to stay wide open.

Naomi refuses to fall.

She has regained her composure and this time plays the final game masterfully. The final point she blasts her serve and Petra returns it wide.

We are so impressed that in a match that by all rights was over in the second set that Naomi went deep within to regain her strength. After the victory she goes down on bended knee and savors her victory.

“Maturity is a high price to pay for growing up.”…Tom Stoppard

Yes, you don’t have to be a grownup to win a professional tennis Grand Slam Championship.

But make no mistake about it. To win two in a row?

It sure helps.

~ ~ ~

Opening photo via South China Morning Post

https://www.tennis365.com/tennis-features/tennis365s-top-10-youngest-grand-slam-winners-becker-rank/

https://www.brainyquote.com/topics/maturity 

http://www.fcielitecompetitor.com/