BRISBANE, Australia - No.3 seed Naomi Osaka bounced back from having the first set snatched from her at the last minute to overcome Sofia Kenin 6-7(3), 6-3, 6-1 and make the Brisbane International quarterfinals for the second year in a row after two hours and 21 minutes of excellent tennis.
The Japanese No.1 sent down a career-high 18 aces and struck 42 winners en route to posting her second win over Kenin, an opponent she first met - and lost to - exactly five years ago, when she was a 17-year-old ranked World No.412 and the American was an unranked 16-year-old, in the second round of the Vero Beach ITF W25 qualifying. The win extends Osaka's winning streak to 13 after her titles in Osaka and Beijing, and one win at the WTA Finals Shenzhen before her withdrawal with a shoulder injury, to close out 2019 - the longest run of victories in her career so far.
"I was serving very well throughout the entire match, so I'm very happy about that," Osaka said with satisfaction afterwards. "Since I had that shoulder thing [the injury that forced her to withdraw from the WTA Finals in October] I haven't really been practicing my serve, so I feel like every serve that I serve should count - and it's been working out really well."
Expanding on her improvement over the course of the match, Osaka revealed that she had been second-guessing herself on return at first. "Everything gets better as the match progresses... I really just needed to figure out the timing and also the pace of her serve," she said. "Because in the first set, always in the back of my mind I felt like she could maybe turn up the speed of her serve, so I didn't want to get caught while I was returning. But then in the second and third set I realized that I should probably just go for my returns and stop being so hesitant."
In a superb demonstration of Kenin's fighting spirit, though, the 21-year-old trailed all the way in the first set until the very last minute, needing to save four set points at 4-5 before reeling off six straight points to come from behind and steal the tiebreak.
There were no breaks of serve in the opening act, which was characterized by two peaks of intensity bookending a series of dominant service holds - particularly from Osaka's end, with the 22-year-old hammering down 10 aces and winning 77% of her first serve points.
Both players survived break points in consecutive high-quality mini-tussles early on, Osaka saving one with an ace in the third game and Kenin responding by fending off two before holding with a backhand winner down the line.
The next dramatic juncture would come as the World No.14 served to stay in the set at 4-5: Osaka, ratcheting up the pressure on her returns, would carve out four set points in total. But the defending Australian Open champion was unable to get over the line, committing an error on each one - including twice chasing a Kenin dropshot down, only to send makeable forehands into the net. A forehand winner would eventually sealed this battle for Kenin after five deuces.
The three-time WTA titlist would turn the ensuing tiebreak around with another play that worked well repeatedly throughout the match: down 1-3, Kenin came up with another hard backhand return down the line into the corner, forcing a short reply from Osaka and an easy putaway. Thereafter, the tiebreak was all about Kenin as Osaka lost control of her forehand.
The run of 12 straight service holds was abruptly ended as the second set got under way with three consecutive breaks. Osaka took her frustration at letting the first set slip from her grasp out on the ball, pounding breathtaking winners from both wings to capture the Kenin serve twice for a 2-1 lead, swiftly putting the younger player's rebreak behind her.
The former World No.1 would hold on to this lead by resuming her previous authority on serve: despite her first serve percentage sinking to 36% and the Kenin backhand return continuing to be a thorn in her side, Osaka would still win 83% of the points behind her first delivery - often at the right moments to bail herself out of potential trouble.
Meanwhile, the two-time major winner continued to test Kenin's mettle - and, just as in the first set, upped the ante on her own returns, beginning by giving the Toronto and Cincinnati semifinalist a taste of her own medicine with a backhand return winner. Again, three set points came and went, with Osaka showing visible frustration as Kenin continued to elude her - but on her fourth, finally landed a backhand blow that was too much for her opponent to level the match.
The deciding set saw Osaka unleashed. Though both her serve and groundstrokes had been impressive throughout the match, she was now deploying them with relentless consistency. Three consecutive winners garnered the Osaka and Beijing champion another break of the Kenin serve for 2-0, sealed when - in an exorcism of some first-set demons - Osaka managed to put away a forehand winner off a Kenin dropshot.
With her first serve percentage having bounced back up to 71%, this was a lead Osaka never looked like surrendering. Last year's semifinalist did not face a break point in the third set, and only conceded seven points on serve in total. Sealing an insurance break for 5-1 as Kenin's error count crept up, Osaka would close the match out majestically, dismissing one last backhand return winner from Kenin to end the contest with consecutive aces.
Up next for Osaka in the quarterfinals will be No.6 seed Kiki Bertens, who needed two hours and one minute to get past Anett Kontaveit 6-3, 2-6, 7-5 in a late-night thriller. "I've practiced with her a couple of times, but it was on clay, so that doesn't count for me," laughed Osaka. "She has a great serve. It's probably going to be another really hard match for me."