For the first time in its tournament’s history, the WTA Finals was held at its new home in Shenzhen. The event was kickstarted in the best possible way, with a rematch of the Australian Open final between Naomi Osaka and Petra Kvitova kicking things off at the Shenzhen Bay Sports Centre. A two-hour, 39-minute thriller marked the start of the tournament, with the Japanese former world number one repeating her win over the powerful Czech on the beautiful indoor hard courts.
It was a high-quality start as Osaka adapted herself to the tricky, slow conditions and fired 30 winners to just 29 unforced errors to claim the 7-6, 4-6, 6-4 win, firing 12 aces in the process. Kvitova would have a low first-serve percentage to blame, sending in just 48 per cent of her first serves. Her high-risk game backfired often, misfiring on 40 occasions but also helping her to find 40 winners en route.
A tough loss for Kvitova, she will look to rebound against Belinda Bencic in her second round-robin match on Tuesday. Osaka will face world number one Ashleigh Barty and looks to extend her advantage in the group, with this being her first-ever WTA Finals win after going winless last year in Singapore.
Osaka recovers an early deficit
Kvitova came out of the blocks firing as she looked to snap a four-match losing streak in the prestigious year-end championships. Handling the low bounces well and taking her forehands early, she barged out to a commanding lead early in the first set, and owned two break opportunities for a double-break lead.
Osaka’s first serves rescued her from the brink and all it took were three double-faults in a single game from Kvitova to erase her lead, with the scores tied at 4-4 after a promising start. The Czech threatened to regain her advantage but was unclutch on the important points, unlike her opponent.
The Japanese saved three break points at 4-4 and survived until a tiebreak despite not playing her best tennis. Surprisingly, it was a one-sided tiebreak, similar to their Melbourne final. Kvitova lost six consecutive points, and despite producing some magic to save some grace, the result was inevitable.
Kvitova roars back into contention
Kvitova finally earned the lead with a comfortable break early in the set, and it felt like deja vu all over again. Osaka’s intensity understandably dipped, but when she sensed the danger, she showed everyone why she is a two-time Major champion.
The third seed rattled off three consecutive games, including two breaks of serve, to lead by a set and a break and looked on course for the straight-sets win to start her Shenzhen campaign. A stadium filled with a number of Japanese fans, the support for Osaka was immense.
Kvitova then took advantage of a couple of unforced errors to roar back into contention, following it up with a dominating love service hold. The message she was trying to send was successfully conveyed as the momentum seemed to have shifted into her hands.
Serving to stay in the set at 4-5 down, this time it was not meant to be for Osaka as her backhand broke down under pressure, allowing Kvitova to force a deciding set in the Red Group opener.
Osaka survives the huge scare
The physical factor was decisive in the third set as Kvitova seems to be physically struggling, and soon lost control of her aggression. Unforced errors flooded her game and Osaka was cool as a cucumber, surging out to an early 3-1 lead.
Kvitova attempted a fightback in the sixth game but was unable to generate a break point opportunity as Osaka swiftly held to consolidate her advantage. The result was all but decided when the Australian Open champion claimed an insurance break, alongside two chances to serve out the win.
However, you can just never rule out Kvitova. She bravely saved two match points and retrieved one of the breaks back before minimizing the deficit to just one game. Nonetheless, withstanding the pressure this time, Osaka comfortably served out the match and claimed the perfect start she needed in Shenzhen.