World no. 4 Naomi Osaka served a career-best 18 aces in her second-round victory over Sofia Kenin, but she may need to bring the same artillery to her quarterfinal clash with Kiki Bertens at the Brisbane International.
Naomi Osaka vs Kiki Bertens is live from Brisbane on Friday 10 January at 2pm local/4am GMT
Osaka is looking for her fourteenth straight match win, having won her last 11 matches of the 2019 season as she claimed back-to-back titles in Osaka and Beijing and scored a round-robin win over Petra Kvitova at the WTA Finals Shenzhen before pulling out of the tournament due to injury, and won her first two matches of 2020 in Brisbane.
Extending that winning streak to 13 – now, according to the WTA, the longest of Osaka’s career – hasn’t been an entirely straightforward affair. Both Osaka’s matches in Brisbane have gone to three sets, with the Japanese-Haitian player battling for two hours and ten minutes to subdue the athletic Maria Sakkari 6-2, 6-7(4), 6-3 in the first round before playing an even harder-fought three-set duel against Sofia Kenin to secure her place in the quarterfinals.
Kenin was named the WTA’s Most Improved Player of the Year for 2019 as she rose from world no. 52 to world no. 12, winning a trio of titles and recording five victories over top-10 players, including Osaka when the latter retired in the deciding set of their match in Cincinnati. The American, who defeated Anastasija Sevastova in the first round in Brisbane, saved four set points and came back from a deficit in the ensuing tie-break, winning six straight points to lead Osaka 6-7(3) before the Australian Open champion won the second and third sets 6-3, 6-1, prevailing in two hours and 23 minutes.
Osaka’s serve was particularly impressive as she rained down 18 aces, a career-best record for a single match, and won 78% of points behind her first serve throughout the match, being broken just once.
‘I was serving very well throughout the entire match, so I’m very happy about that. Since I had that shoulder [injury] I haven’t really been practicing my serve, so I feel like every serve that I serve should count – and it’s been working out really well.’
Osaka was also pleased with the way she returned, adding:
‘Everything gets better as the match progresses… I really just needed to figure out the timing and also the pace of her serve. Because in the first set, always in the back of my mind I felt like she could maybe turn up the speed of her serve, so I didn’t want to get caught while I was returning. But then in the second and third set I realized that I should probably just go for my returns and stop being so hesitant.’
Osaka is looking to make the semifinals of the Brisbane International for the second straight year as she takes on Kiki Bertens on Friday.
World no. 9 Bertens has also battled through two tough three-set matches in Brisbane, where she has had a very difficult draw, first facing the talented young Dayana Yastremska and then the hard-hitting Anett Kontaveit. Bertens prevailed 6-4, 1-6, 6-3 over Yastremska before having to go the distance once more against Kontaveit, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5 in two hours and ten minutes.
Ranked as high as world no. 4 in May 2019 after winning her biggest career title at the Mutua Madrid Open, Bertens narrowly missed out on qualifying for the WTA Finals in October but played and won the WTA Elite Trophy in Zhuhai instead before getting into Shenzhen anyway as a replacement for Osaka, beating Ashleigh Barty and losing to Belinda Bencic via retirement.
The Dutch player, newly uncoupled from Raemon Sluiter who was her coach during her rise from underachieving clay specialist to top-10 player and all-round threat, had not won back-to-back matches in Brisbane in two previous appearances but looks to be on fine form early in the season in 2020. In a first-strike duel of very aggressive serving and returning against the big-hitting Kontaveit, Bertens served ten aces, lost just six of 49 points played on her first serve for the match and succeeded in winning slightly more points on her second serve than Kontaveit, ending the match with 39% of second-serve points won to her opponent’s 27%.
This will technically be the third match Osaka and Bertens have played against each other. Osaka beat Bertens in straight sets in Acapulco in 2016 when both were ranked outside the top 100, and they met again at the WTA Finals Singapore in 2018 when Osaka retired after losing the first set, so there isn’t really much to go on in terms of their historic performance against each other. Aggressive returning will be crucial for Osaka against Bertens, as it was against Kenin, and so will a reprise of her ace-studded quarterfinal performance; if the Japanese-Haitian player’s shoulder holds up and she keeps raining down those big deliveries, she should be equal to the challenge of Bertens, especially if the latter undergoes another second-set letdown.