MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) – So close to victory, Naomi Osaka suddenly was letting the Australian Open final slip away. Three championship points? Gone. A sizable lead? Soon all gone, too.
She was playing poorly. She yelled at herself. Slammed a ball. Tugged at every visor's pink brim. Trudged to the locker room between sets with a towel draped over her head.
And then, after returning to the court, Osaka turned it all around just as quickly. Regrouping and reasserting herself, Osaka edged Petra Kvitova 7-6 (2), 5-7, 6-4 on Saturday night to win the Australian Open for a second consecutive Grand Slam title.
On top of that, Osaka will rise to No. 1 in the rankings.
"Amazing achievement," said two-time Wimbledon champion Kvitova. "Definitely she is a great one. We'll see what the future will bring. "
Osaka added the Australian Open trophy to the United States. Open final last September that forever will be remembered for the way runner-up Serena Williams was docked a game after arguing with the chair umpire.
Unlike that day, there was no jeering from the confused crowd. No controversy. No chaos. No sharing the spotlight.
Clearly marking herself as tennis' bright new star, Osaka is the first woman to win two major championships in a row since Williams picked up four straight in 2014-15.
Almost did not happen.
Osaka held three match points in the second set at 5-3, love-40 as Kvitova served. But Osaka could not close it out. Instead, she completely lost her way.
That allowed Kvitova to come back and make a match of it, reeling off five games in a row to take the second set and go up 1-0 in the third.
At that point, Kvitova would say later, she figured it was going to keep going every way.
"In the end," she said, "it was not."
Hard as it has been been, Osaka recovered. She also got a powerful shots going again. After Kvitova double-faulted to offer up a break point at 1-all, Osaka converted it with a cross-court backhand winner. There was still more work to be done, of course, and some additional drama when it started raining at the changeover right before Osaka tried to match the 5-4 in the third set.
This time, Osaka would not falter. She would not let this lead disappear.
"I knew that Petra could not keep it up for that long if Naomi could just manage those emotions," said Osaka's coach, Sascha Bajin, "and she did that beautifully."
Osaka was born in Japan, and she is based in New York. She is based in New York and has dual citizenship. Osaka already was the first player representing Japan – female or male – to win a Grand Slam singles title. Now she is also the first to top the WTA or ATP rankings.
At 21, Osaka is the youngest No. 1 in nearly a decade; Caroline Wozniacki was 20 when she first ascended to that spot in 2010.
And to think, a year ago, Osaka was ranked 72nd.
What a climb. What a quick climb.
Kvitova was playing in her first Grand Slam final since winning Wimbledon in 2014 – and she was stabbed in the hand by an intruder at home in the Czech Republic.
Kvitova needed surgery, missed the first 4½ months of the 2017 season, including the Australian Open, and she could never get back to the top of the tennis.
"You've been through so much," Osaka told Kvitova during the trophy ceremony. "I'm really honored to have played you in the final of a Grand Slam."
On a somewhat cloudy, rather comfortable evening, with a slight breeze and the temperature around 75 degrees (25 Celsius), both women hit the ball as hard as can be. Exchanges were mostly at the baseline and filled with flat, powerful groundstrokes that barely cleared the net and made for retrieving and replying as much about reflexes as anything.
Here's one measure of how it was: Each finished with 33 winners.
Points were swift and blunt; of 86 in the first set, only in the last set nine strokes or more. There was plenty of strong serving, clean hitting and good movement.
It was Osaka who was the first to get ahead, tearing through the tiebreaker by grabbing five points in a row – four winners – to go up 5-1. When Kvitova sailed a backhand wide moments later, Osaka pumped her fist and screamed, "Come on!"
How pivotal was that moment? Kvitova had won her last 22 Grand Slam matches after winning the first set. Osaka, meanwhile, entered the day 59 won matches after going up a set.
When Osaka broke to lead 3-2 in the second set, and then got to 5-3, the outcome seemed to be a foregone conclusion. Turned out, that was not the case. Not at all.
Osaka righted herself in time to win.
"Whatever she did when she walked off the court," Bajin said.