Osaka pips Pliskova to set up No.1 showdown

  • Matthew Trollope

Naomi Osaka has advanced to her first Australian Open final thanks to a thrilling three-set victory over Karolina Pliskova.

In a match of the highest quality and studded with electrifying winners, Osaka held her nerve to record a 6-2 4-6 6-4 win.

"I kind of expected (a fightback from Pliskova), because I'd played her so many times and honestly she beat me more than I beat her," said Osaka, who lost to the Czech in their last meeting in the Tokyo final in September 2018.

"So I was expecting a really hard battle, and I just told myself to regroup in the third set and try as hard as I can, and I managed to win."

The two women combined for 76 winners against 51 errors under the Rod Laver Arena roof on a scorching summer day in Melbourne.

Osaka, the reigning US Open champion, has built a 13-match winning streak at Grand Slam tournaments and will now meet Petra Kvitova for a shot at a second straight major title. The last player to win back-to-back Grand Slam trophies was Serena Williams in 2015.

Kvitova earlier on Thursday subdued surprise semifinalist Danielle Collins 7-6(2) 6-0.

MORE: Kvitova has too much class for Collins

Pliskova, since reaching the 2016 US Open final, has lost her last two Grand Slam semifinals - the first being at Roland Garros in 2017 -- in three tight sets.

"I'm not upset with myself just that I lost. There is nothing what I would do differently," she said.

"I believe she played unbelievable match. To be honest, maybe her best in the life. I don't think she can repeat match like this. Amount of winners what she had, she just had very little mistakes. I don't think I did actually something wrong. I had some chances, of course I had. The chances, they were not in my hands at all. There was not much what I could do."

Osaka showed in the very first game how dangerous she would be when she brought up a break point. She couldn't convert that, but on her next attempt she fired back-to-back winners to break for 2-1.

It was a lead she would not relinquish, and the first example of Osaka’s ability to land consecutive knockout blows to shut Pliskova out. In the seventh game, back-to-back winners helped her to break point, before a rattled Pliskova double faulted to fall behind 5-2. Osaka then served out the first set with back-to-back aces, taking her winners tally for the set to 16 – compared with Pliskova’s four.

When Osaka broke in the opening game of the second, the match appeared headed for a speedy conclusion.

MORE: Infosys MatchBeats: See how the match unfolded

But Pliskova – who is playing some of the best tennis of her life, and was riding a 10-match winning streak thanks to her title in Brisbane – broke back immediately. Then, trailing 0-40 in the next game, the Czech hauled herself out of trouble and completed a gritty hold.

It was a clear confidence booster; Pliskova didn’t face another break point on serve for the remainder of the set.

Osaka continued to blaze away under the roof, striking winners seemingly at will and eliciting both gasps and appreciative applause from the crowd. 

She had boosted her tally of winners to a staggering 40 by the end of the second set, but she was becoming somewhat over-stimulated, or over-zealous, in her shot-making. Two wild errors, which handed Pliskova a hold for 5-4, were followed by a squeal and a fling of the racquet from Osaka.

In the next game, two more unforced errors from Osaka helped Pliskova break to love – and snatch the second set.

Pliskova won her third straight game when she held to open the deciding set, and accrued three break points in the next game, threatening to wrest control of a match that had, for most of the day, seemed very much out of her control.

Yet Osaka returned to her devastating ways, striking two bold winners to erase the first two and surviving the third. When she held for 1-1, she clutched at her visor in relief.

But she had noticeably steadied. She broke Pliskova to love in the third game, drilled a forehand winner and two aces to hold for 3-1, and two games later, stretched her lead to 4-2 with a hold at love, assisted by another two winners. 

Naomi Osaka
Karolina Pliskova

Pliskova produced one last surge, closing the gap from 4-3, 40-15 to deuce and then earning a break point. The energy in the stadium lifted, sensing a momentum swing. Yet Osaka erased that with an ace and held for 5-3.

Pliskova forced the 21-year-old to serve for the match, and Osaka was up to the task. From 30-30, she closed it out as a champion does, slotting a winner to reach match point and sealing victory with a resounding ace. 

"I guess (I've gained) experience playing matches like this," Osaka reflected.

"To be honest, I was so scared serving second serves (laughter). I was like, oh my god, please! Somehow I made it, so I guess that's experience."