Day 13: Ones to watch

  • Tom Tebbutt

There were 13 current or former Grand Slam event champions in the women’s draw at the start of Australian Open 2019. By comparison, there were only six in the men’s draw.

A year ago, neither of the finalists – Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep – had won a major but 12 months later both have gained that exalted champion’s status.

Also a year ago, this year’s finalist, Naomi Osaka, was ranked No.72 at Melbourne Park and lost 6-3 6-2 in the fourth round to No.1-ranked Halep. The other 2019 finalist, Petra Kvitova, then No. 28, was beaten 6-3 4-6 10-8 in the opening round by No.98 Andrea Petkovic.

A lot has happened in the year since – Osaka won Indian Wells and the US Open and Kvitova captured a tour-leading five titles in 2018. Now, two players committed to uncompromising big-hitting, offensive tennis are not only playing for the Daphne Ackhurst trophy on Saturday night at Rod Laver Arena, the winner also achieves a career first and becomes the WTA’s new No.1.

MORE: Day 13 preview – Winner takes all

No.4 Naomi Osaka vs. No.6 Petra Kvitova

Osaka and Kvitova will play for the Australian Open title in what is the first-ever meeting between the two.
It would seem on the face of it that Kvitova, a lefthander, would benefit more from a first encounter and Osaka said Thursday that she hasn’t played or practised with a lefty in a while. But her coach, Sascha Bajin, insists that she adapts quickly and says facing a lefthander will not be an issue.

He believes Osaka’s movement is a plus, adding; “one of the biggest assets in her game, I believe if a power hitter like her can move like someone who is defensive, the opponent’s going to have to play really well.”

Kvitova arrives in the final after six straight-sets wins while three of Osaka’s victories went three sets. In the third round she was precariously close to elimination – trailing Su-Wei Hsieh 5-7 2-4 love-40. So the 21-year-old Japanese has displayed commendable composure on court through some testing situations.

Since her second Wimbledon title is 2014, Kvitova has had a string of disappointing results and had only two quarterfinals to show for her last 20 Grand Slam appearances before this year’s Australian Open. Her coach Jiri Vanek said about his mild-mannered player, “we call it if she’s in her bubble that she plays this way. But sometimes happen, like, two, three months she’s not in the bubble and then she plays (a) different way. “We just try to put her to her bubble. Then she finds her killer instincts.”

Kvitova herself admitted feeling extra pleasure in finally being in a Grand Slam final again after almost five years. “The mental side of it wasn’t really easy to kind of deal with,” she said, “every time coming to the Grand Slam and losing. Maybe that’s why it’s probably more sweeter than (it) should be.”

MORE: Osaka v Kvitova - how do they match up?

The 28-year-old Czech will depend heavily on her serve and putting away the first shot after the return in the final. As for Osaka, her serve effectiveness dipped mid-match against Karolina Pliskova in the semifinals and will have to be more consistent or Kvitova will tee off with her returns.

Champion in Sydney the week before the Australian Open, Kvitova has now won eight finals in a row, while Osaka is on a 59-match winning streak when winning the first set. If the Japanese wins the opener of the final – something’s gotta give. 

Prediction: Kvitova in two sets.

No. 3 Barbora Krejcikova / Rajeev Ram vs. (WC) Astra Sharma / John-Patrick Smith

The mixed doubles final on Saturday will feature the No. 3 seeds, Barbora Krejcikova of the Czech Republic and American Rajeev Ram against the Australian wildcard pairing of Astra Sharma and John-Patrick Smith.

Krejcikova and Ram came through their two first rounds in decisive match tiebreaks [10-6] and [10-5] but have won their quarterfinal and semifinal matches in straight sets.

Sharma and Smith have been the revelations of the event, beating the veteran pairing of Bethanie Mattek-Sands of the United States and Jamie Murray of Britain 6-2 7-6(5) in the quarterfinals and then No. 2 seeds Nicole Melichar of the United States and Bruno Soares of Brazil 6-4 7-6(5) in the semifinals.

A comparison of the two women in the final is striking – both are 23 years old but Krejcikova, who won the 2018 French Open and Wimbledon titles with compatriot Katerina Siniakova, is ranked No.2 in the WTA doubles rankings (Siniakova is No.1) while Sharma is No.335. As for the men, the 34-year-old Ram is ranked No.22 while Smith, 29, is No.74.

There is a considerable pay day available to the two teams with AUD$185,000 or US$133,000 going to the winners and AUD$95,000 or US$68,000 to the runners-up.

Prediction: Sharma and Smith in a match tiebreak.