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By Richard Pagliaro | Saturday, February 13, 2021

 
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Naomi Osaka fought off match points at 3-5 in the decider firing through four straight games to fight off Garbine Muguruza 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 in a clash of former world No. 1 Grand Slam champions.

Photo credit: Cameron Spencer/Getty

Staring down two match points in the final set, Naomi Osaka was teetering on the ledge of loss.

Steely defiance and dynamic shotmaking sparked Osaka to a major comeback.

Fognini: Ready for Rafa

Osaka fought off match points at 3-5 in the decider firing through four straight games to fight off Garbine Muguruza 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 in a fierce Australian Open battle of former world No. 1 Grand Slam champions.

Though no fans were in the stands, this blockbuster lived up to the hype. Osaka blasted 11 aces, including an ace to save the first match point, and thumped a thunderous crosscourt forehand to save the second. It was Osaka's 50th career Grand Slam win as she scored her 13th straight major three-set win.

The Osaka serve and forehand were keystrokes to this comeback. She pumped 40 winners compared to 24 for Muguruza and when the match was on the line, Osaka played big and bold with plenty of margin, too.

"I feel like I didn't know what to expect because I've never played her before," Osaka said after scoring her first Top 20 win since the Western & Southern Open last August. "Today, I feel like I was a bit intimidated because I knew she was playing really well coming into this match.

"For me, I feel like on the stressful points I just had to go within myself. I know that today I probably hit a lot of unforced errors but I think it was something I needed to do. I couldn't give her any short balls because she would finish it."



It was Osaka’s 18th consecutive victory and vaults her into a compelling quarterfinal against ageless Hsieh Su-Wei.

The 35-year-old Hsieh backed up her upset of 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu and victory over former French Open finalist Sara Errani picking apart 2019 Roland Garros runner-up Marketa Vondrousova 6-4, 6-2. Hsieh made history as the oldest woman to make her maiden major quarterfinal debut.

Every time Osaka has won a Grand Slam fourth-rounder, she's gone on to take the title. The understated Hsieh said she's hoping not to get smashed in the rematch.

"We all know she's a very good player. Anyone play her, they will get troubles," Hsieh said of Osaka. "I not worry about it. She probably going to smash me on the court. I try to play my game, do my job, see what happens."

Three-time Grand Slam champion Osaka knows all about the problems Hsieh poses.

Two years ago, an inspired Su-Wei Hsieh disarmed the world No. 1 with sharp angles and disoriented her with down the line drives stunning Osaka, 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-3, to charge into the Miami Open fourth round. The third-ranked Osaka has won four of five meetings with Hsieh with four of those matches going the three-set distance.

“I’m looking forward to it; she’s gonna be really tough,” Osaka said. “Every time I played her it's three sets, really long. I played her like two years ago here. It’s actually fun when I’m not really angry.

“Definitely makes it really tricky all the people she’s played are super difficult. Whenever I play her I have to expect everything.”

Tennis Express

In her first meeting with Muguruza, Osaka had to crawl back from the edge. Despite serving just 41 percent in the final set, Osaka tempered her power with patience firing 15 winners and winning 12 of 15 first-serve points in the decider.

The 14th-seeded Spaniard put herself in a winning position but Osaka amped up the aggression erasing match points and continued slashing shots winning eight of the final 10 points. 

"In the match points, well, one was an ace," said Muguruza, who dropped just 10 games en route to the fourth round. "The second one probably, I don't know, do different I guess. It's not easy now to think about it. Probably I will have to see again the video and analyze what I should have done different.

"Probably serve better in my service game when I was serving for the match. I mean, I could have served better, probably gained early the control of the rally."

Osaka broke first and took a 2-0 lead at the outset only to see Muguruza break back in the third game. Osaka was the WTA 2020 leader in service games held, but Muguruza blistered a return right back at her breaking for a second time for 5-4.

Serving for the set, Muguruza hit a couple of clutch second serves before drawing a netted forehand to snatch a one-set lead after 31 minutes.

Clean serving from both women marked the set in which Muguruza made 25 of 29 first serves and converted both of her break point chances.

Playing within herself, Muguruza showed patience and shrewd shot selection. A net-cord shot from the Spaniard drew Osaka forward. Measuring the moment, Muguruza froze the Japanese with a rainbow lob winner—recalling the shot she hit on championship point to beat Serena Williams in the 2016 Roland Garros final—breaking to start the second set.

The two-time Grand Slam champion stamped her first love hold of the match to confirm the break for 2-0.

Channeling her frustration to force, Osaka plowed through a two ace game for her third love hold of the match.

The Spaniard served up her sloppiest game squandering a 30-love lead as Osaka drilled a diagonal forehand for break point then drew an error breaking back to level after four games.

The two-handed backhand is a Muguruza weapon and she wielded it driving it down the line then sweeping a swing volley winner for 3-all.

Osaka scorched an 80-plus mph backhand crosscourt and Muguruza sailed a backhand to face double set point.

The 14th-seeded Spaniard saved both but crashed the net with a forehand facing a third set point. Snapping off a full-stretch forehand return, Osaka broke with a bang to take the set and force a decider after 64 minutes.

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Four games into the final set, Muguruza rose to the break point challenge streaking forward to fire off a smash. That sequence helped her hold for 2-2.

Osaka bungled a forehand sitter seemingly holding the wrong grip and when Muguruza hammered a backhand winner own line Osaka flung her Yonex to court still stewing over that botched sitter. Compounding her issues, Osaka blinked double faulting away the first break of the final set.

Fighting through a deuce game, Muguruza showed courage and nifty net skills blocking a backhand volley for game point—she was seven of seven at net to that point—then backed up the break for 4-2 when Osaka found the net.

Staring down break point in the eighth game, Muguruza slashed her seventh and eighth aces in succession Fending off heavy fire from her fellow former world No. 1, Muguruza dashed into the doubles alley and banged a running backhand winner down the line capping a crucial hold for 5-3.

A double fault and netted backhand gave Muguruza double match point.

Under extreme duress, Osaka blew up.

The Japanese lasered her 10th ace to save the first and hammered a heavy forehand crosscourt to save the second. Ripping a forehand down the line, Osaka dotted the center stripe with her 11th ace withstanding match-point turbulence to force Muguruza to serve it out.



The 2020 finalist erased a pair of break points, but Osaka refused to yield. Jerking the Spaniard side-to-side, Osaka pumped a forehand into the corner breaking back for 5-all.

"I feel she's very strong," Muguruza said of Osaka. "I feel she has strong shots, strong serve. Yeah, I feel like if she serves well, she has a lot on her side. She gets the control pretty early."

Muguruza tried facing pressure with forward thinking but Osaka made her play a low volley. The Spaniard pushed it long then sprayed a forehand wide to face triple match point.

When the Spaniard sent a forehand long, Osaka survived a one hour, 55-minute thrill ride.

 

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