Tennis: Naomi Osaka becomes Asia's first world No. 1 after beating Petra Kvitova in three sets to win Australian Open

The win made fourth seed Naomi Osaka the first player from an Asian country to claim the world No. 1 ranking.
The win made fourth seed Naomi Osaka the first player from an Asian country to claim the world No. 1 ranking.PHOTO: AFP

MELBOURNE - At the end, Naomi Osaka sank to her haunches at the baseline, head down, resting on her racket. Overcome, overwhelmed and finally over every obstacle. Then she ran to the net and Petra Kvitova generously and gracefully drew her into an embrace. Osaka knows how to win and Kvitova how to lose. Women's tennis is great theatre because it has an outstanding cast.

Osaka won 7-6 (7-2), 5-7, 6-4 and then apologised for not being a public speaker but a charmed crowd did not care. This was not the US Open and unkind boos, this was Melbourne and love at first forehand. Later she endearingly admitted she had forgotten to smile at the trophy presentation. Who talks like this, who plays like that? In her originality lies her appeal.

Osaka later said she was "tired" and this was understandable. After all, she won the Australian Open women's title twice on a cool night. She was up a set, had three consecutive match points in the second set and for a brief moment held the trophy with one hand. Then she wobbled and it slipped away.

Osaka lost the second set, covered her head with a towel and left the court and a reporter asked if she had got emotional. She grinned: "Did you not see my tears?"

She was hurting and yet she returned to win the title and this was an overcoming not just of a rival but of herself. There is an old word to describe this young woman. Character. As Kvitova said: "She's a really big player."

What is striking about Osaka is not just her shots but her self-possession, her ability to again find composure in the crucible. At the US Open she withstood Serena Williams' outburst and here her own hiccup of doubt. Kvitova - who said "I don't know how long it will take me to get over (the loss)" - played with heart but Osaka's was just a few millimetres bigger.

Of all Osaka's numbers on this night, one was pre-eminent. Not 33 which was the winners she hit, nor 192kmh which was her fastest serve. She has won only three titles in her career and two are Slams but it was not even that. The number that glittered was No. 1. Tomorrow she will be the first Asian to head the ranking list. Top of the planetary class. How very Asian of her.

Asian women have been sweeping aside self-doubt for years on sporting fields. They have won a football World Cup, figure skating championships, Olympic wrestling golds and last winter Mary Kom, 35, the mother of three, won her sixth world championship in boxing.

Li Na became the only Asian - man or woman - to seize a Grand Slam singles title yet the No. 1 ranking has eluded the continent, standing in the distance like a taunt.

Now Osaka has got there and to see Li Na hand her the trophy yesterday was fitting and poignant. Osaka said she "wanted to cry a little bit" and it was a splendidly Asian moment. Of course, half of Osaka belongs to Haiti but that seems to be conveniently ignored.

The match was splendid to start with because if both women wear a perfume it is presumably called Aggression. If they were not shaving the net with ferocious shots, they were burning the fuzz off the ball.

Kvitova had chances to break but Osaka would not yield. Her right hand hammers defiance, her left fist clenches in belief. She is both an unusual superstar who wears her fame reluctantly and a stubborn player who snacks on pressure.

Osaka took the first-set tie-breaker whereupon Kvitova flexed her hand, which was once cut open by an intruder, and fought back. Above the sky turned orange, below was forged red-hot tennis.

Then, drama.

Kvitova was down 0-40 at 3-5 in the second set, but Osaka, with three match points, could not break. Then Osaka served for the match at 5-4 and was broken to 5-5. The crowd howled, the ladies shrieked. Osaka looked rattled and Kvitova grabbed the second set.

How Osaka refound her poise in the third set, how she calmed her nerves, how she did all this at 21, is what constitutes the mystery of champions. We see them play but never quite know how they handle fear. We watch their shots but never know the conviction which lines their insides. It takes courage to show the world your best.

When Osaka won the US Open, some cynics hemmed and sceptics hawed. It is fashionable to scoff at young talent as if they are shooting stars who are only passing by. But two Slams in a row is never a fluke; four three-set wins at this Open is not luck; 60 wins after winning the first set is not karma. It is worked for, it is talent, it is convincing, it is astonishing.

Tennis has a new leader and she is a child of her times. Not boastful but not given to false humility. Asked if she had surprised herself by the incredible things she had done, she replied: "Yes and no."

You cannot predict your rise, but Naomi Osaka knows you have to believe in it.