Naomi Osaka: The champion with a story

This article was written by Nicole Hunt. 

On Saturday night in front of a roaring crowd both Petra Kvitova and Naomi Osaka each walked onto Rod Laver Arena for the women’s singles final with a story.

Osaka’s story was more recent and perhaps fresher in the minds of those watching.  The 21 year old was all smiles, headphones on and waving at the crowd whilst holding her mobile phone.  You don’t often see that in tennis, phones aren’t usually on court and if they are, they’re hidden away.  But this is a new generation, the Next Gen, and a mobile and killer headphones are a compulsory part of their kit.  She of course won the most recent Slam, the 2018 US Open, but so many headlines were about her beaten opponent and not about Naomi’s maiden victory.  You can Google it, it will be for many years one of those ‘moments’ in tennis history and it doesn’t need to be described again here.  Suffice to say there was an altercation between Serena Williams and the match officials at the end of that US Open final in front of a parochial New York crowd.  Although Naomi was the victor that day it was far, far away from any typical moment of victory.  

Kvitova’s story didn’t unfold on stage in front of the world’s television cameras, but in her own home in 2016 where she was the victim of a violent break-in that resulted in significant injury and operations on  her hand.  The psychological injury though, was something else.  Sleeplessness.  Anxiety.  It’s still so fresh, especially when you consider that according to media reports a suspect was only charged in October 2018, just three short months ago.  The events of one single day continue to reverberate through so many days ahead, and it’s far from over yet.

Closure for either of these women’s stories might be difficult to find, but holding the trophy aloft would help, no doubt.  What an amazing match it was!  A tiebreak in the first saw Osaka go a set up.  In the second set she had three championship points to close it out, but Kvitova fought back to win the game, break serve, and even the score – one set apiece.  A third tough set followed and eventually it would be Osaka again to claw back the lead and the championship.

It was 21 year old Naomi in the end who lifted the trophy – but both Naomi and Petra were victorious in Melbourne.  One would get to experience being a Grand Slam Champion anew and hopefully have a wonderful memory to overlay the last.  The other with two Slams already under her belt prior to her horrible injury, would get to celebrate being back competing at the top of the tennis world when not so long ago it looked like she’d never hold a racquet again.  There was talk this week that she still has limited feeling in the fingers of her left and dominant hand, and may never completely recover it.  It’s true what they say, tennis is the winner.

On Sunday, Australian Open 2019 will close with the last championship matches played, culminating in a much anticipated replay of the 2012 final between Rafa and Novak – neither need any more identification than that – in a match that lasted almost six hours.  That’s unlikely to happen this time given the new rules for a super tie breaker in the deciding set and the serving ‘shot clock’ that’s not only curbed Rafa’s repetitive obsessive mannerisms, but has arguably quickened his pace and made him even more formidable.  It’s going to be an incredible match to top off so many incredible matches this past fortnight.

Melbourne Park gets bigger and better every year and so does the tennis.  We’ve seen unprecedented support for wheelchair tennis this year and a televised final that resulted in another singles title to the unstoppable Dylan Alcott.  We’ve seen record crowds through the gates, even throughout the heatwave that’s gripped the south eastern states.  We’ve said our goodbyes to Andy Murray, we’ve seen the rise of the Next Gen and we’ve seen some of the faults in our long-shining stars.  Australian Open 2019 is drawing to a close and soon we’ll know whether Rafa or Novak comes out on top in AO2019.  I’m looking forward to next year already.