Osaka digs deep against Pliskova to set up Kvitova final

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka staved off a fightback from Karolina Pliskova to reach her maiden Australian Open final with a 6-2 4-6 6-4 win on Thursday setting up a title clash with double Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova.

Tennis - Australian Open - Semi-final - Melbourne Park, Melbourne, Australia, January 24, 2019. Japan's Naomi Osaka celebrates after winning the match against Czech Republic's Karolina Pliskova. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Osaka burnished her reputation as one of the cleanest hitters of the ball in women’s tennis by smacking winners almost at will from both her forehand and backhand under the roof of the Rod Laver Arena which was closed due to extreme heat.

“I like the heat so I was kind of sad about that... No, but like, they have the roof open and I was like, ‘oh, it’s my time to shine’,” Osaka said in an on-court interview.

She scorched the court further with 56 winners, often going down on one knee to generate immense power to leave former world number one Pliskova stranded.

The Czech could muster only 20, half of which came in the second set when she hung in to level the match despite the barrage of winners from her opponent.

“I mean I kind of expected (the comeback) a little... I was expecting a really hard battle,” said the Japanese, who had won once in their three previous meetings before Thursday.

“I just told myself to regroup in the third set and try as hard as I can.”

Osaka has now won 59 straight matches when winning the first set and also trumped Pliskova on the service front.

Coming into the match as one of the biggest servers in the women’s game, Pliskova managed three aces in the match while the Japanese reeled off 15, often coming up with unreturned serves to win the crucial points.

“I believe she played unbelievable match. To be honest, maybe her best in the life. I don’t think she can repeat match like this,” Pliskova told reporters.

“Amount of winners what she had, she just had very little mistakes. I don’t think I did actually something wrong.”

Osaka broke Pliskova’s service games twice while facing not a single breakpoint to canter through the first set.

Pliskova, who had stunned Serena Williams in the quarter-finals, showed lot of pluck to level the match with a second break at 5-4 after the players had an early trade of breaks.

Osaka converted her only breakpoint opportunity in the decider while her opponent wasted four and the 21-year-old made it to her second straight Grand Slam final with her 15th ace to seal the match in an hour and 53 minutes.

She was, however, made to wait before she could celebrate her victory. Osaka waited with folded hands after challenging the line call and then erupted in joy once the Hawkeye technology confirmed the ace.

“I don’t necessarily think I played the best I’ve ever played,” Osaka told reporters. “I mean, for me, what I take away from this is that I never gave up, and that’s something that I’m really proud of myself for.

“There are moments in the match where I thought, like, this is getting really close. I just thought I wouldn’t forgive myself if I had, like, a little dip or a moment of accepting defeat.”

Osaka will meet another Czech in Kvitova, who will compete in her first Grand Slam final in five years after defeating unseeded American Danielle Collins 7-6(2) 6-0 in the first semi-final.

Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly; editing by Amlan Chakraborty