Japanese star Naomi Osaka stormed into the Australian Open final Thursday to set up a battle with Czech comeback queen Petra Kvitova for the Melbourne Park crown and world number one ranking.
The 21-year-old outgunned seventh seed Karolina Pliskova 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 to reach her second successive Grand Slam decider after a breakthrough triumph over Serena Williams at last year’s US Open.
Osaka took the first set then held off a barnstorming comeback by Pliskova, who survived four set points to eliminate Williams on Wednesday but could not manage another miracle turnaround less than 24 hours later.
“I expected it, I expected a really hard battle,” Osaka said of Pliskova’s attempted return from a set and a break down to extend a 10-match winning streak.
Fourth seed Osaka admitted the never-say-die Czech rattled her but she drew on her experience winning a major at Flushing Meadows to settle her nerves.
“Somehow I made it. I just told myself to regroup in the third set and try as hard as I could no matter what, and I managed to win.”
Osaka is seen as the leader of a new generation of stars but victory in her maiden Slam was overshadowed by Williams’ raging rows with the umpire in the final at Flushing Meadows.
Victory on Saturday would make her the first woman since Williams in 2015 to win the US and Australian Opens back to back, burnishing her Grand Slam credentials and confirming her superstar status.
The roof of Rod Laver Arena was closed amid sweltering temperatures approaching 40 degrees Celsius (104 Farenheit) and Pliskova believed it gave Osaka an edge.
“The conditions with the roof closed were perfect for her,” she said. “It wasn’t bad for me but maybe she just loved it little bit more.
“It was tough. Maybe a couple of points there would have been different.”
– Top ranking tussle –
Standing between Osaka and the Australian title is another Czech opponent Kvitova who is on an even better winning run than Pliskova, with 11 straight matches.
The winner of the final will become the new world number one, replacing Romania’s Simona Halep.
Two-time Wimbledon champion Kvitova, 28, also has a wealth of experience to draw on and it proved telling as she raced past unheralded American Danielle Collins in the other semi-final.
Seeded eight, Kvitova defeated Collins, who had a dream tournament debut to reach the final four, 7-6 (7/2), 6-0 after the closure of the centre court roof gave her a boost.
Collins was matching Kvitova until play was interrupted late in the first set to shut the roof and the Czech said she was struggling until then to find her best form
Reaching the final is the highlight of what Kvitova calls her “second career”, after she returned following a terrifying attack in her home in the Czech Republic in late 2016.
A burglar slashed her racquet hand, sidelining her for almost six months and causing permanent nerve damage.
“To be honest, I think not very many people believed that I could do that again, to stand on the court and play tennis and kind of play on this level,” she said.
World number 35 Collins, who a year ago was ranked 167, will rise to 23 as a result of her run to the final four.
The combative American initially performed strongly to force a first-set tie-break.
But she became frustrated after Kvitova won it to take the first set and said the roof closure “certainly changed a little bit of the rhythm in the match”.
But the 25-year-old, who previously played most of her tennis on the US college circuit, announced her arrival with a breakout tournament run that included a 6-0, 6-2 humilation of world number two Angelique Kerber.
“I don’t think anybody would have put their money on me to get this far in the tournament,” she said.