MELBOURNE, Australia — What better way to kick off Australia Day weekend than with a win-one, get-No. 1-free special at Melbourne Park?
That will be the holiday bargain on offer inside Rod Laver Arena on Saturday when Petra Kvitova and Naomi Osaka square off in the Australian Open women’s final for the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup and the top spot in the women’s world rankings.
Kvitova, a two-time Wimbledon titlist from the Czech Republic, advanced with a 7-6 (2), 6-0 defeat of the American Danielle Collins in the first of Thursday’s semifinals. Osaka, the reigning United States Open champion, engineered a 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 victory over Kvitova’s compatriot Karolina Pliskova, who described Osaka’s play as “unbelievable” and said, “There was not much that I could do.”
Osaka, 21, can become the first Japanese singles player, male or female, to hold the No. 1 ranking, a piece of history that seemed well beyond her grasp last year at this time when she entered the tournament ranked No. 72.
“Of course that’s a very big deal for me,” Osaka said, adding, “I’m just really happy that I’m in the position that I am now, and I’m not going to take it for granted.”
Kvitova, who rose as high as No. 2 in 2011, didn’t know that No. 1 was within her reach here. “I don’t really care, to be honest,” she said.
Pointing to her head, she added, “I don’t think there’s any room here to think about it.”
She feels especially blessed to be playing for another major title. This is her first Grand Slam final since she fought off a knife-wielding burglar in her Czech Republic apartment in 2016. She sustained nerve and tendon damage in all five fingers of her dominant left hand in the attack, requiring hours of surgery to repair and sidelining her from competition for five months.
“I didn’t know even if I was going to play tennis again,” Kvitova said, adding, “It wasn’t only physically but mentally was very tough, as well. It took me really long while to believe.”
Since returning for her self-described “second career” at the 2017 French Open, the 28-year-old Kvitova has won seven tournaments, including five last year.
She started 2019 on a high note, prevailing in the tuneup event in Sydney. But for all her success, she had struggled in the majors; after winning Wimbledon for the second time in 2014, Kvitova didn’t advance to the semifinals in her next 16 Grand Slams. Her best showing was two quarterfinal appearances at the U.S. Open.
“For the mental side, it wasn’t really easy to kind of deal with that every time, coming to the Grand Slam and losing,” Kvitova said. “Maybe that’s why it’s probably more sweet.”
Osaka may be in her second consecutive major final, but she can remember when making it to the second week was a major victory. Before her breakthrough against Serena Williams last year in Flushing Meadows, Osaka lost in the third round of Grand Slams seven times and got as far as the fourth round only once.
“Man, for me it feels like it took awhile,” Osaka said. Laughing, she added, “Maybe my time goes slower than your time. But definitely I remember all the matches that I lost in the third round.”
Osaka used to become easily frustrated. The biggest change that her coach, Sascha Bajin, has noticed in this tournament is that she is controlling her emotions better when points don’t go her way.
“I just have to tell her grass is green, water flows and everything is all right sometimes,” Bajin said. “Over all, she’s very hard on herself. She has very high expectations. She wants to do well. She wants to get better.”
Kvitova was the same age that Osaka is now when she claimed her maiden Wimbledon crown, in 2011. Back then, her career stretched before her like a clear ribbon of highway. Sure, there were a few potholes, but nothing she couldn’t get past. Then came the attack in her apartment.
Kvitova said she found out only recently that in the early months of her recovery, her doctor wasn’t optimistic about her returning to competitive tennis.
“Luckily he didn’t tell me, like, during that period,” Kvitova said.
Last summer, Kvitova met Monica Seles, who arranged the introduction. “It was such a nice feeling to meet someone who kind of went through same things and thoughts and everything,” Kvitova said of Seles, who was stabbed by a spectator during a match in 1993.
Seles returned to competition, and won the Australian Open in 1996 for her ninth major championship.
“I didn’t know that, actually,” Kvitova said. “It’s nice then.”
Whatever happens Saturday, Kvitova feels as if she has already won. “To be honest, I think not very many people believe that I can do that again, to stand on the court and play tennis and kind of play on this level.”