No, it’s not the Serena-Osaka battle royal rematch everyone was hoping for. Instead, it’s a battle we’ve never seen before: Naomi Osaka and Petra Kvitová will square off against each other for the very first time at Rod Laver Arena in the final of the Australian Open at the insomniac’s hour of 3:30 a.m. EST Saturday morning with everything on the line: The year’s first Grand Slam title, of course, awaits the winner—but so does the world’s No. 1 ranking.
How they got here might be some indication of how they’ll match up: While Kvitová, who’s 28, has played only one ranked opponent en route to the finals (15th seed Ashleigh Barty), Osaka, 21, has played nothing but since the first round. By that same token, if Kvitová can dominate points early with her booming and many-splendored serve and seal the deal with her surgical-strike ground strokes, she’ll raise her first Grand Slam trophy since taking Wimbledon for the second time in 2014—but if Osaka can withstand Kvitová’s serves (her second serve is a beast unto itself) and start working points with both power and spin, she’ll own her second consecutive Grand Slam and become the first Japanese singles player, male or female, to ever hold tennis’s No. 1 ranking (Osaka was born in Japan to a Haitian father and a Japanese mother). For comparison: Osaka entered last year’s Australian Open ranked 72 in the world.
The X factor: Osaka’s weakest point is probably her second serve. Look for Kvitová to jump on it with a vengeance. And while Kvitová doesn’t have such a glaring vulnerability, Osaka moves around the court a little more efficiently—and, much like Rafael Nadal, seems to possess the ability to simply will herself to win when the chips are down.
No matter who wins, it seems poised to go down to the wire. Brew strong coffee—and don’t forget to black out your sports news if you’re not watching it live.
As for the men’s final on Sunday at the same time: It’s No. 1 Novak Djokovic versus No. 2 Nadal in a marquee matchup. All the horse sense in the world says that the newly emergent Djokovic takes this one with his superior conditioning and pinpoint accuracy—but, as we said, Nadal is one of those players who simply cannot be counted out. The match could go two ways: A quick and easy surgical deconstruction by Djokovic—or a brutal fight-to-the-finish gut check win from Nadal.
Enjoy the tennis.