They made 2019 (I): The day Osaka won the Australian Open

EPISODE 1/10. In 10 days, 10 players and 10 stories, here are the tales of a fascinating year.

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 - Reem Abulleil

In 2019, there were first-time grand slam champions and new kids on the block, all threatening to upstage the old hands. But for all the promise of the next generation, it was a year in which the established stars continued to fend off the youngsters and mop up the biggest titles in the sport. 

In 10 days, 10 players and 10 stories, here are the tales of one of the most fascinating years in recent tennis history. EPISODE 1/10.

It’s Saturday, January 26, 2019 and Naomi Osaka is walking off court in tears after squandering three match points and losing the second set of her Australian Open final to Petra Kvitova.

The Japanese star – a US Open champion just a few months earlier – had taken the opening set in a tiebreak against Kvitova, then recovered from 0-2 down in the second by running away with the next four games to lead 4-2

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Swat them away

With Kvitova serving at 3-5, Osaka got her hands on three opportunities to close out the match. Three championship points. Any one of them would give her a second consecutive Grand Slam title. But all three dissipated into thin air as Kvitova found her serve to swat them away and hold.

Serving for the championship, Osaka got broken and went on to surrender the second set. The majority of the crowd on Rod Laver Arena, along with the millions watching on TV across the globe, were probably thinking it was over for the then 21-year-old, who was seen crying on her way to a toilet break before the decider.

Their suspicions gathered steam when Kvitova won the first five points of the third set. But then Osaka did what she does best – she proved everyone wrong.

In a composed manner that is hard to fathom given the circumstances and what was at stake, she held serve, then broke Kvitova and went on to secure her second major crown, which came with a piece of history, as it made Osaka the first-ever Asian tennis player to become the world No.1.

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Couldn't have been more perfect

Adding to what had already been a special occasion for tennis, the trophy ceremony provided an iconic moment as Osaka received the trophy from former Australian Open and Roland-Garros champion Li Na. Asia’s first Grand Slam champion was handing over the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup to Asia’s first world No.1. It couldn’t have been more perfect for Osaka on that historic day in Melbourne.

“I didn't expect to see her there. At first I was very shocked. I wanted to cry a little bit, but I didn't want to cry on the podium. I was really touched. I just felt really honoured that she was giving me this trophy,” Osaka later said.

Those 15 minutes that saw Osaka go from despair to triumph in a matter of games now feel like a microcosm of her 2019 season.

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Special moment with Coco Gauff

After Melbourne, Osaka courted even more attention than she did after she had captured her maiden slam at the 2018 US Open, where she defeated Serena Williams in a drama-filled final. Her sudden split with her coach Sascha Bajin on the heels of her Australian Open success raised many eyebrows.

In her first event as world No.1, she lost her opening match to Kristina Mladenovic in Dubai and later cried in her press conference, admitting the increased attention and scrutiny she was getting required some time for her to adjust.

Things didn’t pick up for her during the clay and grass-court swings and she entered the North American summer hard-court stretch as the world No.2, after being leapfrogged by Roland-Garros champion Ashleigh Barty. In New York, Osaka’s US Open title defence was halted by Belinda Bencic in the fourth round, but it was a special moment she shared with 15-year-old Cori Gauff after their third round that made headlines worldwide.

Osaka defeated Gauff in a highly-anticipated match on Arthur Ashe stadium then invited the American teen to join her in the on-court interview after she noticed she was crying. Osaka urged Gauff to stay on court instead of heading to the locker rooms in that state, and wanted to give her a chance to address the roaring fans, who were supporting her throughout the clash.

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"I just felt very strong desire"

Osaka, who earlier in the year confessed to struggling with attention, as well as public-speaking, gave the most moving speech on court, directed to Gauff and her parents. Footage of that moment went viral within minutes and it showed how Osaka was coming into her own, and becoming a leader in the women’s game in more way than one.

The disappointment of her US Open last-16 exit did not linger, as Osaka went on a tear during the Asian swing, lifting her home title in Osaka, grabbing the Premier Mandatory trophy in Beijing, and extending her winning streak to 11 straight matches by downing Kvitova at the WTA Finals in Shenzhen.

A right shoulder injury forced her to withdraw from her remaining matches there, but that couldn’t possibly dampen her mood after she recovered from her midseason slump in tremendous fashion, just as she had done during that Australian Open final early in the year.

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“I just felt very strong desire,” Osaka said in Shenzhen when asked if she had felt any added pressure to try and turn her season around after New York.

“Before I flew to Japan, I sat down with my agent and talked to everyone. I was, like, ‘I know the Asian swing is coming, it's the last part of the year, and I promise you I'm going to win these tournaments. I'm sorry that US Open didn't turn out how everyone sort of expected it to. I'm just going to give it my all for this last part of the year, then everyone can go home happy’.

“I think I accomplished that.”

She certainly has!