SHENZHEN, China - No.3 seed Naomi Osaka kicked off Red Group action in the inaugural Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen in superb style, stemming the tide of a peaking Petra Kvitova, defeating the No.6 seed 7-6(1), 4-6, 6-4 in two hours and 39 minutes.
The Japanese player reprised the result of this January's classic Australian Open final, where she lifted her second Grand Slam trophy, in another thrilling three-setter - this time winning the first set from a break down, losing the second from a break up and dominating the third. Osaka also equals the longest winning streak of her career at 11 victories in a row, previously set in 2018 when she won the US Open and followed it by reaching the Tokyo final.
"I'm not great at first rounds," said Osaka self-deprecatingly afterwards on how the round-robin format affected her. "It takes me a little bit to warm up. I think that this tournament forces you to do well early." However, after going 0-3 in her WTA Finals debut last year, Osaka also revealed that a source of motivation in Shenzhen was to "redeem [herself] a little bit."
Today, Osaka needed to call upon all of her clutch instincts to recover from a lightning start from a rampant opponent. Rushing the net with alacrity and blitzing the ball past Osaka with ease, Kvitova struck eight clean winners in the first three games alone, breaking in the first with a smash and holding two points for the double break in the third.
At this juncture, the 22-year-old was being outgunned by Kvitova's power, particularly on the forehand down the line and out-maneouvred by the Czech's forecourt dominance. But three straight service winners extricated Osaka from trouble and a smart move forwards of her own got her side of the scoreboard going - and, crucially, enabled the Osaka and Beijing champion to keep in touch with Kvitova despite the former World No.2's superlative level.
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That would pay off when the Sydney and Stuttgart champion came down from her high in the eighth game. Having conceded just two points behind her delivery to this point, Kvitova squandered a 40-15 lead with three double faults out of nowhere - and a set that had begun as a mismatch was suddenly all square.
At its business end, Osaka continued to display a supreme clutch mentality, repelling three break points to take the lead for the first time at 5-4 before storming through the ensuing tiebreak, hammering down her fifth and sixth aces as Kvitova's forehand fell apart, taking the 2011 WTA Finals champion's unforced error tally to 24 for the set compared to 21 winners.
"It takes me a minute to get used to someone and their patterns," mused Osaka afterwards. "Of course, it was very difficult for me to adjust to her serves at the beginning. Honestly, I think the game that I won was a bit lucky because she double-faulted quite a lot. I'm not sure if I, like, intimidated her into making those double faults, but I did feel a bit lucky with that."
The second set threatened to repeat the pattern of the first for Kvitova - but this time, the 29-year-old was able to hold off the turnaround. Undaunted by losing the opening set in such fashion, Kvitova took advantage of Osaka's first patch of careless errors to once again capture the first break for 2-0 - but the former World No.1 was quick to bounce back to reel off three games in a row to go up a break herself for 3-2.
Kvitova's double faults continued to be ill-timed - a fifth down break point in the third game put the set back on serve - and her forehand unreliable: three more errors from that wing allowed Osaka the chance to go up a break, which the Australian Open champion seized with a clean backhand return winner, one of a number of phenomenal redirections with that stroke during this passage of play.
A valiantly competitive Kvitova was not about to let Osaka run away with the match, though. Aiming her returns deep and at Osaka's feet, the two-time Wimbledon champion continued to press at every opportunity, drawing errors from her visibly frustrated opponent to draw level - and then, demonstrating canny use of variety to construct points, to steal the set as an Osaka backhand flew wide.
As in Melbourne, Osaka had edged a tight first set on a dominant tiebreak but managed to lose the second from a winning position - and keeping up the pattern, the Brisbane and Stuttgart semifinalist would put that disappointment behind her to deliver a tight, focused decider. This was despite an on-court coaching session with father Leonard François in which she complained about being unable to play calmly.
"Everyone that knows me knows I feel like it's two separate personalities," recalled Osaka to the press. "Like I'm either really calm to the point where I don't care about anything, or I'm very frazzled quite easily and I invest all of my emotions. It's just kind of navigating that and trying to figure out how to be the calm person all the time on the court - which is really hard because I invest a lot of time in tennis, so I feel like it's the one thing that I'm very emotional about."
As for François' contributions, Osaka had mixed feelings afterwards. On the one hand, she has been unbeaten with him in the role of coach since the US Open. On the other? "He's so annoying. Oh, my God," his daughter joked.
"Do you hear his on-court coaching? I can't believe it. He runs up to the bench talking about, Be calm. That's it. He doesn't give me any tactics. I can't believe this. I was so mad!"
With all the momentum at the start of the set, Kvitova continued to add to her highlights reel with some spectacular shotmaking: a drop volley to hold in the first game, a backspun lunged volley in the second. But despite posting an even 40 winners and 40 unforced errors over the course of the match, her magic would desert her when she needed it most: instead, double faults proved Kvitova's Achilles' heel yet again.
A seventh and eighth paved the way to a break in the second game, sealed for Osaka when a Kvitova dropshot limped halfway up the net; a ninth put her down break point in the seventh game, and a volley into the tramlines moved Osaka up 5-2 with the double break.
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By contrast, Osaka was repeatedly able to find her best serves on key moments, raising her tally of aces to 12 and complementing them with some fine forecourt play of her own as she took control of the third set. The double break would prove crucial: swarming the net, Kvitova fended off two match points to break and stay alive the first time Osaka served for the win, but stepping up to the line the second time the World No.3 made no mistake.
A pair of service winners, a bold drive volley and a sweeping backhand winner saw Osaka over the line, scoring her first ever WTA Finals victory on her third match point having totaled 30 winners to 29 unforced errors.