MELBOURNE, Australia - Petra Kvitova will be the sentimental favourite in Saturday's Australian Open final - this will be the first major final for my fellow Czech since the attack in her home in December 2016.
For Kvitova to be playing this well after everything that has happened to her, and having to come back from the physical and emotional trauma of that incident, is just unreal. But she will find it very tough to beat Naomi Osaka, who has been playing the best tennis of her career while seemingly improving her game on a daily basis.
Over her last couple of matches in Melbourne, against Elina Svitolina in the quarterfinals and then against Karolina Pliskova in the last four, Osaka has had the look of a champion - she has been handling the pressure beautifully. In my mind, her performance against Pliskova, which saw her hit 56 winners, was better than the tennis she played to defeat Serena Williams in last year's US Open final to take her first Grand Slam. So that tells you just how well she is playing, hitting her best form when it matters most.
Whatever happens on the Rod Laver Arena, there will be a popular champion, as there's an unbelievable storyline on both sides of the net. There's a pretty good cherry on top of the cake for both of these women, too, as whoever wins the title will become the WTA World No.1 for the first time, replacing Simona Halep. Getting to No.1 for the first time is always a big deal. To really appreciate the amazing rise for Osaka, remember she was ranked No.72 this time last year. And, of course, she would be the first Japanese player to be ranked No.1.
When you think about it, it's unbelievable that when the Australian Open started there were as many as 11 women who had a chance of leaving Melbourne as the No.1. And even at the semifinal stage, there were still three women in contention, as Pliskova also had a chance. But now it comes down to Osaka against Kvitova - and that's just a terrific ending to the tournament, really fantastic.
I'm surprised, and also impressed, that Kvitova is through to her first Grand Slam final since winning the 2014 Wimbledon title. As much as she has progressed in the last couple of years, and done well at tournaments away from the Grand Slams, the majors haven't been friendly to her during that time. It's funny because at other events she has had her ups and downs during matches but, at this tournament, she has been really consistent, and hasn't dropped a set so far this fortnight.
Osaka, meanwhile, could become the first woman since Jennifer Capriati in 2001 to follow up a maiden Grand Slam title by immediately winning the next major. Some players have a letdown in the first major after that breakthrough Slam. But, since winning in New York last September, Osaka has kept her focus and has continued to improve the way she plays and moves and handles herself. She's just getting better and appears to be embracing everything.
If Kvitova is to defeat Osaka in their first meeting, and in what is a first Australian Open final for both players, she will to need to mix up her serves, varying the direction and the pace. Osaka is such a good returner so Kvitova really needs to keep her guessing. Kvitova must also be the one to get the first big hit of the rally, which would put Osaka on the defensive, and I would also advise throwing in a few slices and mixing it up.
Of the two, Osaka is a slightly better mover so she has the edge there, and could look to mix it up a little. Osaka also has the firepower to dictate the final. Both players are used to being the boss during their matches, so it will be interesting to see who can boss who around more...
In any case, here is hoping for some great tennis to conclude the first major of the year, when we will be hailing the new No.1 player on the planet.