Naomi Osaka still refuses to lose in the quarterfinals and beyond at Grand Slam tournaments. Jennifer Brady has made it further at a Grand Slam event than she ever has before. Now they will face off for the 2021 Australian Open title.
No.3 seed Osaka charged past 23-time major champion Serena Williams 6-3, 6-4 in the Australian Open semifinals Thursday, advancing to the fourth Grand Slam final of her career and putting herself one win away from her second Australian Open crown.
Brady, the No. 22 seed, survived a more protracted battle in her semifinal affair. She outlasted No.25 seed Karolina Muchova 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 to advance to her first Grand Slam final.
Osaka and Brady will now face off Saturday for the year's first major trophy, with Osaka holding a 2-1 lead in their head-to-head rivalry. Their most recent meeting was a three-set classic at last year's US Open, where Osaka had to fend off a spirited challenge by her opponent in Brady's first major semifinal.
Osaka is now 11-0 over her career when she reaches the quarterfinals at major events. Each time she previously advanced to that stage of a Grand Slam event -- 2018 US Open, 2019 Australian Open, and 2020 US Open -- she went on to win the championship.
"I have this mentality that people don't remember the runners-up," Osaka said in her post-match press conference. "You might, but the winner's name is the one that's engraved."
Osaka, who has won three of the past five hardcourt Grand Slam titles, needed 1 hour, 15 minutes to stop Williams, who was aiming for a record-tying 24th Grand Slam title. As their power games clashed, it was Osaka who had the edge on the day, hitting 20 winners to Williams' 12, while also committing three fewer unforced errors.
Seven-time Australian Open champion Williams had been 8-0 in Australian Open semifinals over her career. Williams, the No. 10 seed, playing her milestone 20th Australian Open, was unable to reach her 34th Grand Slam final and ninth Australian Open final. She fell to 1-3 lifetime against Osaka.
"There was a point when I got broken today, and I was going up to the line to return her serve, in my head I had all these thoughts about how she's the best server, I'm probably not going to be able to break her," Osaka said. "But it is what it is.
"Then I told myself to erase those thoughts and just to, like, in a way I was telling myself I don't care because I can only play one point at a time and I'm going to try my best to play every point as well as I can."
In fact, it was Williams who got off to the quick start in the encounter, striking a strong backhand to force an error from Osaka and break in the opening game, then consolidating with ease for 2-0. Williams was a point away from a 3-0, double-break lead before Osaka steeled herself to get on the scoreboard.
"I felt like I just started making way too much unforced errors because I was worried about what she would do if I were to hit a soft ball," Osaka said. "I think when it was like 2-0, I was just telling myself to control what I can control and try to play within myself instead of thinking about what she would do or anything like that."
From there, Osaka took control of the first set. After two tough games to edge ahead 3-2, Osaka claimed a break point with a backhand down the line, then slammed a forehand winner to notch a fourth straight game and lead 4-2. A series of strong forehands were put to great effect on Osaka’s first set point, as she grabbed the one-set lead.
Osaka blasted a backhand winner to break Williams in the first game of the second set, and she rolled to a 4-2 lead from there. The third seed was not out of the woods yet. She misfired on multiple double faults at 4-3, which Williams took advantage of, breaking back for 4-4.
In the following game, Osaka regained control, coming out on top in rallies with stirring winners to break again for 5-4. With momentum reclaimed, Osaka charged through a love service game to secure the win and return to the Australian Open final.
Looking forward to Brady, Osaka said their 2020 US Open clash is "easily one of my most memorable matches. I think it was just super high quality throughout. For me, it's not really surprising at all to see her in another semis or another finals."
For Brady, her victory represented a direct progression from the last hardcourt major, where she reached the final four at the 2020 US Open before falling to Osaka. Going one round further this week, she now becomes the seventh woman to reach a maiden Grand Slam final in the past nine majors.
"I would say throughout my junior career, you know, all the coaches that I had, I was training at the Evert Tennis Academy and they were always telling me, you know, I had potential to be a great tennis player," Brady said during her post-match press conference.
"But it was just finding my game and finding -- you know, I had a bit of a temper as a kid," Brady continued. "Wasn't really mentally the toughest. So I think that has kind of just shifted my whole career, just being able to stay in tough moments, close out tough matches, just fight my way back regardless of the score."
Brady had been in fine form throughout the fortnight, conceding only 26 games en route to the last four, the fewest games dropped out of any of the semifinalists. Muchova, who was playing in her first Grand Slam semifinal, pushed Brady to the limit, but it was the 25-year-old American who prevailed in a match that took a shade under two hours.
In a tightly contested opening set, Brady used her heavy forehand to obtain a 2-0 lead before Muchova struck back immediately to get back on serve, helped along by a Brady double fault on break point. The pair remained on serve until 5-4, where a sturdy return gave Brady a set point. Muchova ceded the set with her first double fault at the most inopportune time.
Muchova immediately grabbed the momentum in the second set, rocketing excellent returns to break Brady in the opening game. The Czech did not let up, never facing a break point and winning all eight of her second service points in that set. A return winner on the baseline gave Muchova a set point at 5-3, and this time around, it was Brady who double faulted to end that frame.
In the decider, an early break by Brady seemed to set the tone, as the American went ahead 2-1 and never faced another break point through 5-4. However, Muchova charged into the forecourt with aplomb to polish off points, keeping herself in touching distance with her mix of skillful net play and jolts of power.
In the final game, Brady powered her way to four match points while Muchova’s pinpoint returning helped her fend off each of those. Muchova also had three break points in the 18-point game, but she could not prevent Brady from converting her fifth match point when a Muchova ball flew long.
"It took a lot longer than I hoped for," Brady said of the final game. "I was just so nervous. I couldn't feel my legs. My arms were shaking. I was just hoping she would miss and she didn't, and she was playing more aggressive. Then I would say I started rambling, mumbling on and on and on and on. It was just point by point, point by point, and eventually I was able to close it out."
Now comes the rematch with Osaka, with a potential reward of a maiden major trophy.
"I don't know how I'm gonna feel on Saturday," Brady said. "I can say I can enjoy the moment and just try to play tennis and not really think too much about it, but there's gonna be moments, there's gonna be games, there's gonna be points where I'm going to be thinking about, 'Wow, this could be my first Grand Slam title.' I will definitely have those thoughts. But it's more just trying to control the emotions, really.
"I remember playing her in this tournament. It may have been like a lower-level challenger event. I think she was just coming up maybe inside the top 200, and I remember playing her. I was like, 'Wow, she hits the ball huge. She's gonna be good.' I mean, I was like, 'OK, she's got something special.'"