MELBOURNE, Australia -- Naomi Osaka pulled off a stirring upset in the third round of the Australian Open on Saturday, when she executed a display of pure powerful precision to overcome No.18 seed and top-ranked Australian Ashleigh Barty, 6-4, 6-2, on Margaret Court Arena.
"I feel really happy, but I feel kind of sorry, because I know you guys really wanted her to win," Osaka said on court after the match to laughter and applause. "I’ve always wanted to play against an Australian player here, because on TV it seems really cool, so thank you!"
Osaka, the 2016 WTA Newcomer of the Year, now finds herself in the fourth round of the Australian Open, and, indeed, of any major event, for the first time in her career. She had previously made the third round at all four Grand Slam events, but never had been able to advance beyond that.
Tennis fans can now look forward to a fascinating fourth-round match between Osaka and World No.1 Simona Halep of Romania. Halep had a much more difficult pathway to the fourth round, as she barely survived a marathon match against American Lauren Davis earlier in the day, eventually prevailing 4-6, 6-4, 15-13.
"I've played [Halep] twice, and both times it was three sets," Osaka said in her post-match press conference. "I had fun both times. I feel like I learned a lot. I feel playing the No.1 is really an honor. No matter what happens, I'll try my best. I'll just see what happens from there."
It was the first meeting between two of the WTA’s most promising young talents since a first-round qualifying match at the Abierto Mexicano TELCEL in Acapulco back in 2014, which Barty won in straight sets.
But the hard-hitting 20-year-old Osaka, the World No.72 and top-ranked player from Japan, had her fearsome forehand and stunning serve on form, allowing her to oust 21-year-old Barty in 73 minutes. Osaka hit 12 aces and 24 total winners during the electric encounter.
"I don't really think I hit that hard, to be honest," Osaka said with a smile during her presser. "I'm always a little bit surprised when people say that because it's not really my intention. I don't go into the match saying, I'm going to hit as hard as I can."
Little did she know, but Barty sealed her first set fate in the opening game of the match, where she dropped her serve with some loose play. Any hope that the Australian, fresh off a run to the Sydney International final, would be able to get back on serve was quickly dispelled when Osaka showed her mettle at 2-1, saving two break points with exquisite serving in the clutch.
Barty's strong volleys and slices came into play as the set reached its conclusion, as the Aussie hope tried to ply errors from the big-hitting Japanese player. Barty again jumped to double break point when Osaka was serving for the set at 5-4, but her and the crowd's hopes were dashed once more via a tough serve and a backhand winner. Two points later, the first set was Osaka's.
Incredibly, Osaka did not falter down the stretch as she approached a breakthrough win at a major, and, in fact, her stats improved in the second set. She hit eight aces in the second set, double the amount she served in the opener, and again won every break point she grabbed, finishing the match 3-for-3.
Barty erred by dropping serve in the first game of the second set, just as she had in the first. She then gave Osaka a 3-0, double-break lead by hitting a ball right to the Japanese player during a grueling rally on break point, which Osaka put away for a backhand winner. Osaka held for 4-0 behind three consecutive aces, before Barty finally got on the board by holding for 4-1.
The slightest of chances appeared for Barty when Osaka hit a couple of unforced errors to fall behind 0-30 as she served for the match at 5-2. But, as she had all match, Osaka came through with her powerful weaponry when it mattered, hitting two aces to recoup the decisive game, including one on match point.
"I think I was down on my serve 0-30, like, every few games," Osaka told the press. "Normally, well, you would think the game is basically over a little bit, and get really upset. But I tried to think positive and stuff. So I think that's how I helped myself in that area."