Closings & Delays

Petra Kvitova and Naomi Osaka to battle for Australian Open title and No. 1 ranking

FILE PHOTO (EDITORS NOTE: COMPOSITE OF IMAGES - Image numbers 1087813666,1087765830 - GRADIENT ADDED) In this composite image a comparison has been made between tennis players Naomi Osaka of Japan (L) and Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic. They will meet in the Australian Open Women's singles final on January 26, 2019 at Melbourne Park in Melbourne, Australia. ***LEFT IMAGE*** MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 24: Naomi Osaka of Japan celebrates in her Women's Semi Final match against Karolina Pliskova of Czech Republic during day 11 of the 2019 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 24, 2019 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images) ***RIGHT IMAGE*** MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 24: Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic celebrates in her Women's Semi Final match against Danielle Collins of the United States during day 11 of the 2019 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 24, 2019 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Petra Kvitova and Naomi Osaka will play for the Australian Open title — and world No. 1 ranking — after both won their Thursday semifinals in scorching Melbourne.

Thankfully for players and fans alike, the roof on Rod Laver Arena was closed for most of the day to provide shelter as temperatures reached around 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).

Kvitova was the first to progress, seeing off the unseeded, fiery Danielle Collins 7-6 (7-2) 6-0 before Osaka edged Serena Williams’ conqueror, Karolina Pliskova, 6-2 4-6 6-4.

Come Saturday, one of the duo will be a debutant Aussie Open winner, and will end the reign of Simona Halep, whose 48-week stay at the summit concludes Monday.

The duel between fan favorites Kvitova and Osaka promises to be hard-hitting — the Czech, in particular, will take some stopping.

Why? She enters the final on an 11-match winning streak and her record in finals is a remarkable 26-7.

This after the twice-Wimbledon champion was lucky to be alive, following a home invasion in 2016 that seriously damaged her left, playing hand.

The hand will never be 100%. Saturday’s showpiece is the first grand slam final Kvitova has reached since being stabbed.

No hangover for Osaka

Japan’s Osaka has admirably shown this fortnight there has been no hangover effect after she opened her grand slam account at the US Open last September, topping Williams.

Indeed Osaka became the first female player since American Jennifer Capriati in 2001 to win a first grand slam title and then make the final in her next major.

She has passed each test coming her way, be it dealing with unusual game styles of her opponents or overcoming slight wobbles in matches.

Even if the 21-year-old falls short in the final — and that is certainly not a foregone conclusion — it’s highly unlikely that she’ll stop at just one major.

Hill to climb

Winning this semifinal against Osaka always figured to be a harder task for Pliskova, backing up her stunning victory over Williams on Wednesday.

That encounter lasted more than two hours — far longer than Osaka’s comfortable outing against Elina Svitolina. The Czech had less recovery time than Osaka and recent history tells us that players who defeat Williams at a grand slam before a final struggle in their next outing.

On the last 11 occasions, that player has lost nine times.

That said, Pliskova had all the momentum in the third, only to be repelled by Osaka.

Getting hot in here

The Australian Open introduced a heat stress scale from one to five to gauge Melbourne’s intermittent, sauna like conditions. Five can lead to the roof being used on covered courts.

Kvitova and Collins began outdoors with a 10-minute break scheduled between the second and third sets if it went to a decider but at 4-4, the index reached five and the roof was utilized.

Kvitova certainly didn’t mind while Collins — who is used to similar weather given she hails from Florida — said if the match started with no roof it should have finished like that.

Early deficit for Kvitova

Kvitova fell behind by a break at 3-2 too but grabbed it straight back on her fifth break attempt.

Collins, the latest unseeded women’s semifinalist at the Australian Open, somehow reached the tiebreak despite serving under 40%.

But Kvitova blew open the tiebreak and once that was done, completely relaxed. She has now won 22 straight matches at grand slams when claiming the first set.

Collins took issue with chair umpire Carlos Ramos — he of the US Open Williams-Osaka controversy — when he ordered a first serve to be replayed because the net machine inadvertently beeped in the first game of the second set.

The same thing appeared to happen prior to the world No. 35 striking her next serve yet there was no let played.

She was later broken and Kvitova ultimately cruised into her first grand slam final outside Wimbledon.

By her own admission struggling at grand slams last season — the opposite of her play at WTA events — Kvitova ended that hoodoo.

Early momentum

Osaka appeared to be cruising in her semifinal.

Fifty-nine straight times she has won matches when collecting the first set, so the odds swung in her favor following her early gains against Pliskova.

It got even better for Osaka when she broke for 1-0 in the second. However the Japanese-American — who lost to Pliskova in the Tokyo final last fall — temporarily blinked and Pliskova pounced for 1-1.

Pliskova’s big serve was constantly under pressure but Kvitova’s compatriot hung on and eventually got her reward by breaking to end the second.

Momentum switch

A two-game swing settled matters in the third.

Osaka saved three break chances at 0-1 — two by crunching backhand winners — and then broke to love as part of a 10-point run.

At 4-3, a huge ace saved another break point.

The tussle ended on via Hawk-Eye, Osaka challenging a rocket of a serve down the tee called wide.

Waited for the ruling, Osaka put her hands together as if to pray. She was proved right.

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