Osaka-Muguruza in Melbourne felt like a Grand Slam final, and brought a prize-fight atmosphere to Rod Laver Arena.
“I’ve never played against someone who beat me when I was really trying hard,” a self-assured Naomi Osaka said when she was in the middle of a 23-match, 13-month win streak last year.
The ironclad belief that Osaka developed during that may have been best illustrated by her 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 win over Garbiñe Muguruza in the fourth round at the Australian Open. Osaka trailed virtually the entire way, went down a break in the each of the last two sets, and faced two match points at 3-5 in the third. But none of it was enough to shake her confidence that, at least for one brief shining moment in time, she was unbeatable.
The first career meeting between Osaka and Muguruza felt like a Grand Slam final, and it brought a prize-fight atmosphere to Rod Laver Arena. Each woman was a major champion—Osaka had three, Muguruza two—and each a former No. 1. Neither had dropped a set in their first three rounds. It seemed as if there was a good chance the winner would go on to win the tournament. From the start, these two power-first players did what they do best: Hit the ball as hard as they could at each other.
“I felt like I couldn’t hit any ball at a slower pace, or else she would immediately move me.”
The pattern—Muguruza jumps ahead, Osaka hangs on for dear life—was set right away. Muguruza broke Osaka in the opening game and went up 2-0, before Osaka leveled at 2-2. The same thing happened at the start of second set. Again Muguruza broke and went ahead 2-0; this time, with a set and break lead, it looked as if she might run away with the match. But again Osaka responded with service aces and forehand winners to break back. She broke again on a reflex forehand return with Muguruza serving at 4-5. Suddenly, a match that Muguruza seemed to be dominating was level at one set each.
“I think that’s something you get when you play a Grand Slam champion,” Osaka said. “For me, that’s where I pla
y the best because I feel like I’m pushed really hard.”
In the third set, Osaka was pushed to the limit. Once more, Muguruza broke early and built a lead; this time she reached 5-3, 15-40, double match point on Osaka’s serve. And that’s when Osaka’s confidence kicked back in. She saved one match point with an ace. She saved another with a powerful forehand. She held with an ace. From there, Osaka, who had been spraying unforced errors for most of the afternoon, didn’t make another as she ran away with the last four games and the win.
“I felt the entire match I was overthinking,” Osaka said. “There was a moment when I got angry and, like, hit my racquet on the ground. I feel like I released a lot of the thoughts that I had. It just made me go more into, like, instinct-based tennis.”