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Osaka ranked number one in the world (Australian Open recap)

In an Australian Open final that pitted two former champions against each other, Naomi Osaka was able to win her second consecutive major. Osaka, still only 21, was pushed three sets by Petra Kvitova as she won the final 7-6 (7-2), 5-7, 6-4 to become the first woman to win consecutive majors since Serena Williams pulled it off in 2015.

In the first meeting between the two players, Osaka was able to take control in the tiebreak. Kvitova could have had a break midway through the first set, with Osaka serving at 0-40, but Kvitova hit four unforced, to allow Osaka win the game which helped lead to the tiebreaker.

Osaka was holding match point with a 5-3 lead in the second set and Kvitova serving at 0-40. However, Osaka struggled to close out the set while Kvitova hung on and forced a third set by winning 18 of the next 22 points.

An early break by Osaka in the third set gave her a 2-1 lead allowing her to focus on her service games. With a 4-3 lead Osaka was able to hold serve without allowing a point, before closing the match by winning four of five points on her final service game. The final stats go further in explaining how tight of a match this was with Osaka winning four more total points, hitting only four more aces, committing six less unforced errors, while the players were equal for winners and break points.

The match was also for the world number one ranking, something that has alluded both women up until this point in their careers. With the win, Osaka was able to become the first Japanese woman to claim the top ranking as she continues to impress in her young career after beating Williams in the US Open final last fall for her first Grand Slam championship.

The loss for Kvitova came after she built momentum early in 2019 with a win in her previous tournament, the premier level Sydney International, and had yet to drop a set in the Australian Open until the final. Kvitova was in her first grand slam final since 2014, when she won Wimbledon for a second time.

Returning to a career-high ranking of second, which was reached in 2015, is a nice consolation prize in Kvitova’s road to recovery from injuries suffered in a home invasion in the winter of 2016. After being forced to get surgery from severe cuts sustained to her hands, Kvitova was able to perform well in 2018, winning five WTA titles which was the most of any player last season.

With grand slams there is so much more than just the finals. One of the major stories, was the performance of American Danielle Collins who reached the semis of her first Australian Open and was also the first time she advanced past the first round in a grand slam. The two-time NCAA champion (2014 and 2016) was the talk of the tournament with wins over three seeded players including second ranked and three-time major winner Angelique Kerber in the round of 16. After starting last year, ranked outside the top-100, Collins is now ranked #23.

Collins met Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the quarters, with those two being the only unseeded players remaining. A steady veteran who has been a top-50 player for over 10 years now, Pavlyuchenkova had to fight to reach this stage with wins over fifth seeded Sloane Stephens after dropping the first set in the round of 16.

Pavlyuchenkova was also forced to go up against ninth seeded Kiki Bertens in the second round in a match that also took three sets to win. The veteran has shown she can do well in the first week of grand slams, having reached the quarters at all four but again failed to reach her first semis.

After the draw was made, many expected either Serena Williams or Simona Halep to meet Osaka in the semi-finals, but another top-ranked player was waiting for her chance to shine. With Williams defeating Halep in another classic three-set match between the two, Williams set up a meeting with the Czech Republic’s other top star, seventh-seeded Karolina Pliskova.

Pliskova is a hard-court specialist that had lost in the quarterfinals the previous two years along with the Australian Open and US Open. After splitting the first two sets with both players winning 6-4 the third should have been close but Serena took a commanding 5-1 lead.

With Serena serving on match point she was called for a foot fault on what appeared to be a winning serve. This didn’t seem like a big deal as she could still easily win the set. Not so fast, my friend, after rolling her ankle on the next point, but not calling for a trainer, Pliskova was able to win six straight games to win the third and final set to set a new personal best in Australia. Serena was humble in defeat and refused to blame the injury and instead gave Pliskova credit for continuing to play well when backed against the wall.

For people who enjoy seeing crowds that are more biased in terms of atmospheres for matches, the progress of home favourites — Ashleigh Barty, who reached quarter-finals, and wild card entrant Kimberly Birrell, eliminated in third round — was exciting to see.  

Barty, still only 22, was able to reach a personal best in a grand slam after coasting to the fourth round without dropping a set. Facing a test in Maria Sharapova, who was coming off a big win over third seeded Carolina Wozniacki, Barty dropped the first set before winning the final two sets to advance.

Barty will look to improve on her best performance since her return to tennis, after taking two years off to play cricket. Barty came back to tennis after first struggling to adapt at a young age to the travel and time commitments required, which lead to her playing cricket for three years before returning in February 2016. In 2017 she reached the top 20 in both singles and doubles play before a breakout season in 2018 that included winning her first majors singles title in the WTA Elite Trophy.

The other Aussie, Birrell, was more of a surprise , entering unseeded and ranked 249th in the world to start her year. After getting her first win over a top-10 player to start the year in the Brisbane International, over 10th ranked Daria Kasatkina at the time, Birrell was able to win her first two Grand slam tournament matches, including over 29-seed Donna Vekic. In the third round, she met Kerber who proved to be above her level with Birrell only able to win one game. Now ranked inside the top 150, the 20 year-old could be on the potential of a breakout season based on her opening month.

Osaka may have won but there are plenty of young stars behind her that are aiming to dominate grand slams and that list starts with Aryna Sabalenka, only 20. The Belarusian reached the fourth round at the US Open and was on a roll heading into her third-round match with yet another rising star. Sabalenka reached four finals last year and one already this season, including winning the Wuhan Open, a Premier 5 tournament, as well as the Premier level Connecticut Open on her way to a top 10 ranking now.

American, Amanda Anisimova, amazingly only 17, won the third-round match before losing to Kvitova in the round of 16. Anisimova has been a star since reaching the French Open main draw at the age of 15 in 2017, becoming the youngest player to do so since 2005. Last September she reached her first WTA final and cracked the top-100 and is now up to 61.

North of the border, Bianca Andreescu has started 2019 with major success. The Canadian is another player who has been finding success from a young age when she began to dominate the junior ranks at the age of 15. After winning a few ITF level events to close 2018 she finished the year just outside the top 150. After defeating top seeded Carolina Wozniacki in the Auckland Open, Andreescu would reach the finals before losing to an at the time 14th ranked Julia Gorges.

A second-round loss to Anastasija Sevastova, was less than ideal for the Canadian, but it did allow her to enter the second level WTA event in Newport Beach. The young star was able to collect her first title at that level and finish the month ranked 68th, while becoming the top Canadian.

Rounding out the group of young standouts was Dayana Yastremska of the Ukraine. At the age of 18, Yastremska was able to make the third round after beating a pair of veterans in former US Open champion Samantha Stosur and 29 seed Carla Suarrez Navarro, a former top 10 player. Yastremska had a great season in 2018 winning her first WTA title in October and became the first woman born in the 2000’s to crack the top 100, where she is now ranked 48th.

A player who may be a few years young to qualify for that grouping of players but reached the quarter-finals before losing to Osaka is Ukrainian Elina Svitolina. Svitolina has represented Ukraine in the top 10 of the rankings since winning the Italian Open in May 2017, becoming the first Ukrainian to be ranked in the top 10. 2017 was her breakout year, winning three premier tournaments, before adding a fourth last year, as well as achieving personal best in each major. Ranked number seven Svitolina should be a threat for years to come.

The biggest fall in the rankings to any top player belongs to Belgium’s Elise Mertens, who entered with a ranking of 14. The Belgian did well early in Australia to avoid upsets but had the bracket break in a way in which she was forced to go against 17 seed Madison keys in the third round. Mertens was unable to win a set and after reaching the semi-finals in Melbourne last year had a lot of points to defend, which she was unable to do.

With young players on the rise and pulling off upsets, there were some high ranked players who struggled. Usually one or two players who leave way earlier than their seed would indicate, and this year that player was Russian Daria Kasatkina, the 10 seed. Having reached two quarter-final’s last season at Wimbledon and the French Open the young Russian (21) would have been looking to continue her climb in the rankings but fell to former star TImea Bacszinszky, who we’ll get to in a moment.

Another top player who fell in the first round was German Julia Gorges, who entered as the 14 seed. An ultimately unlucky draw upon review had her facing Collins. Gorges rode a surprise semi-final appearance at Wimbledon last year to rise in the rankings, along with a few other strong results sprinkled throughout the year, to gain a high ranking but was no match for the American.

Mentioned earlier was Timea Bacsinszki and she deserves a little section for herself. The Swiss player who at one point was in the top 10 back in 2016, managed to crack the third round this year which tied her career best. The former two-time French Open semi-finalist is returning to form after an injury to her wrist caused her to miss the 2017 US Open.

After returning in 2018 Bacsinszki would start the year by losing nine consecutive matches before dropping down to the second level of the WTA Tour, where she was able to find more success. After dropping all the way down to 761 in the rankings, the former Swiss star has climbed back up to 113 and will use her protected ranking from her injury to as she looks to gain more points.

One other player who people have noticed slowly returning to form is Canadian Eugenie Bouchard. Still only 24, the former Wimbledon finalist reached the semi-finals of two international level events last year after dropping out of the top 100 for the first time since 2013; the year she won junior Wimbledon. With her success in 2014 at the age of 20 before a concussion suffered at the 2015 US Open, Bouchard may be turning a corner if she can get a couple of easy draws and improve on her up and down form.

Between the Fed Cup, Premier and international level tournaments the WTA tour will slow down briefly until two Premier Mandatory tournaments in Indian Wells and Miami occupy all of March. Until then St. Petersburg starts on Monday, Jan. 28 (Premier level), the Qatar Open starting Monday, Feb. 11 (Premier level) and the Premier 5 level Dubai Tennis Championships which should draw plenty of big names starting Monday, Feb. 18.

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