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The happy final at the Happy Slam: Hard to root against Kvitova or Osaka

The happy final at the Happy Slam: Hard to root against Kvitova or Osaka

Osaka and Kvitova will face off in the Happy Slam final. (Photos: AFP/David Gray/Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon)

MELBOURNE: Petra Kvitova knew this moment could come. When it did, she broke out in a smile as exuberant as the cheers in Rod Laver Arena.

No, we're not talking about match point. We're referring to the announcement, at four-all in the first set of her semifinal match against Danielle Collins on Thursday (Jan 24), that tournament officials had decided to close the roof.

"I think I was happier than the fans," Kvitova, 28, said on court, after beating Collins 7-6 (2), 6-0 and earning her maiden spot in an Australian Open final, where she will face 2018 US Open champ Naomi Osaka.

"I like to play indoors."

After all she's been through the past two years, it's hard not to be happy for Kvitova, a two-time Grand Slam champ who, until Thursday, hadn't seen a Slam semifinal since winning her second Wimbledon title in 2014.

In December 2016, Kvitova was attacked in her home in the Czech Republic by a man wielding a knife, and suffered deep cuts to her left hand and fingers while defending herself.

After surgery and months of intense rehab, Kvitova returned to tennis at the 2017 French Open not knowing whether she would ever be the player she once was. She is now into the third major final of her career.

Reaching the final is the highlight of what Petra Kvitova calls her "second career". (File photo: AFP/Peter Parks)

"It means everything," Kvitova said. "I worked pretty hard to be back. It just tastes very great. To be honest, I think not very many people believed that I can do this again, to stand on the court and play tennis on this level.

"To be honest, I'm still not really believing that I'm in the final. I just set up the mind that I really wanted to come back, and I did everything."

Then there's Osaka. With her 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 win over Karolina Pliskova, Osaka is into her second straight Grand Slam final with the opportunity to wipe the slate on that US Open championship match of four months ago - or at least on the trophy ceremony that followed it.

A win on Saturday would offer Osaka, 21, a do-over of sorts, a chance to enjoy the beautiful moment she was robbed of after she defeated Serena Williams for the title.

If she wins, Osaka will also become the first woman not named Williams to win two straight Slam titles since Kim Clijsters won back-to-back majors at the 2010 US Open and 2011 Australian Open, and become the first Japanese player to reach No 1.

Japan's Naomi Osaka Fourth drew on her experience winning a major at Flushing Meadows to settle her nerves. (File photo: AFP/David Gray)

It's difficult to decide whose feel-good story rates higher on the goose-bumps meter ahead of their showdown. And while few people may have predicted it, Osaka-Kvitova is turning out to be a truly exciting matchup with a lot on the line.

Kvitova is a left-handed powerhouse with a tricky serve. Osaka is a righty power hitter with the biggest forehand in the game. Kvitova is on a 10-match winning streak. Osaka hasn't lost a match in two seasons in which she won the first set.

Two of the most in-form players on tour, both women are playing lights-out tennis and increasing their fan bases along the way. In fact, the winner will take over the No 1 ranking from Simona Halep, who held it for 42 consecutive weeks entering this tournament.

FIRST TIME

Remarkably, Saturday will be the first time No 5 Osaka and No 8 Kvitova will face each other in any round of any tournament.

"To have the opportunity to play her for the first time in a final of a Grand Slam is something very amazing," Osaka said. "I know what a great player she is. It's definitely going to be very tough for me."

With temperatures projected to be in the high 70s (about 26 degrees Celsius) on Saturday night, the final is assured to take place under the Melbourne sky, negating any atmospheric advantages Kvitova might have had against Osaka, a Florida resident who admittedly prefers to play in the heat.

An equally formidable hitter who's scored more aces (50) and winners (226) than any other woman in this tournament, Osaka has also proved to be mentally tough when it counts. She's saved 70 per cent of the break points she's faced while gutting out several tough three-setters.

But don't sleep on Kvitova: She has yet to drop a set this tournament.

While both women said that just making another major final is an accomplishment in itself, a positive step in their journeys, they also both came to Melbourne believing they could win.

One thing is for sure: No matter which player leaves Laver carrying the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup, tennis fans are assured a win.

This article first appeared on ESPN.com

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