World No.3 Naomi Osaka will put her 20-match winning streak on the line against No.24 Jennifer Brady in the Australian Open final. Saturday's showdown will be a high octane rematch of the best match of 2020, which saw Osaka edge Brady in the US Open semifinals 7-6(1), 3-6, 6-3, en route to her third major title.
Earlier in the tournament, Osaka described their US Open match as one of the top two matches of her career, a testament to how hard Brady's powerful, heavy game pushed her to channel her best that night.
"After I played her in the semis of New York I knew she was going to do well," Osaka told WTA Insider after her semifinal win over Serena Williams.
"I think for me that's the most interesting thing about women's tennis right now. There are so many amazing new players and so many players people can watch. That's a really good thing. I'm actually really excited to play my match on Saturday."
For Brady, the match was a watershed moment in her career. Ranked No.41 and coming off her first WTA title at the Top Shelf Open in Lexington, Kentucky, Brady blitzed through her draw to make her first major semifinal without losing a set. Despite the loss, the 25-year-old left New York with a new sense of belief and ambition.
"When I'm playing matches now, I'm never in doubt about whether I can win the match or not," Brady told WTA Insider after her semifinal win over Karolina Muchova. "I believe the match is on my racquet, that it's within my control. It's different. I'm not stepping out there and hoping that my opponent doesn't play well or that I play great tennis. Instead, it's just me controlling my emotions, being in control of the points and my game and myself."
"Even making semifinals here, the second week here, it solidified that it's not a one-time thing, just mentally for myself. Knowing that I belong here, I belong at this level, I've earned the right to compete for Grand Slam titles four times a year.
"Having confidence from that match that I played against Naomi in the semis, I think that match may have changed my life and my outlook on how I approach showing up at Grand Slams."
"It was extremely high-quality tennis. I think I can definitely take some confidence from that, knowing that I was right there.
"When I go out there, she's not going to overpower me. She's not going to play unbelievable tennis where I can't find my game. When I go out there, it's having the mentality that I'm not beneath her. I have a chance of winning."
Brady has a tall task ahead of her. In addition to riding a 20-match winning streak - you have to go back to early February of last year to see a loss on Osaka's record - the 23-year-old has yet to lose a match at a Slam when she reaches the quarterfinal stage, posting an astounding 11-0 record. Having already captured the 2018 US Open, 2019 Australian Open, and 2020 US Open, Osaka is bidding to become the first woman since Monica Seles to win her first four major finals.
But for the first time in her career, Osaka will head into a major final as the more experienced player. Her last three major finals came against Serena Williams, Petra Kvitova, and Victoria Azarenka. While Brady acknowledged she will be nervous for her maiden final, Osaka dismissed the idea that experience would tell the tale on Saturday.
"I feel like experience is important because you can draw on the things you didn't think you did well in the past and memories," Osaka said.
"But at the same time, I acknowledge that not having experience is also good because I didn't have experience when I won my first Slam. There's a certain hard-headedness that comes with not winning a Slam before. There are two sides to every story."
And while there was much discussion of the tight US Open semifinal, Osaka believes she's a different player five months on. Her team, which includes veteran coach Wim Fissette, acclaimed trainer Yutaka Nakamura, and physiotherapist Natsuko Mogi, has become even tighter over the last year during the pandemic stoppage and post US Open off-season. Osaka's openness with her team has led to a healthier approach to her tennis and the work has paid off.
"Just talking to them more, I feel I sort of released a burden that I had," Osaka said. "I understood that winning is amazing, it's great, it's what everyone wants, but the biggest thing that they want from me is to try my best. I can't control the outcome but I can control how hard I push and that's something that I understood after a while."
Osaka's improvement in her return of serve has been key to her progress through a tough draw in Melbourne. Against opponents that included Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Caroline Garcia, Ons Jabeur, Garbiñe Muguruza, Hsieh Su-Wei, and Serena Williams, Osaka has won 63% of her return points against second serves and winning 45% of her return games.
"I'm really glad that people are noticing [the improvements in my game] because we definitely did put a lot of work in.
"After the US Open final the biggest thing I wanted to improve was my service return. After I played Vika I had a hard time having confidence with my serve and for me, that's very rare. I thought that spoke to how well she returned and I wanted to put that kind of pressure on people as well. So that was definitely our goal in the off-season."
Brady is more than aware that she goes into the final as the underdog. One of the keys for the Pennsylvania native will be to keep her cool and maintain the poker face she mastered in New York. It may surprise fans to know that Brady used to have a temper that even today she is embarrassed to recall.
"I used to crack racquets all the time, throw them, you name it," Brady said. "It's not PG, but when I was younger when I was 13 and I said some F-bombs and my coach threatened to kick me off the court. It wasn't pretty. I would helicopter racquets, I would cry, I would complain, I would whine. It was a little bit embarrassing. I felt bad for my mom when she would be there watching and supporting me and I would be acting like a fool.
"I learned from that. Watching other players when they're showing negative emotions on the court, it's not helping them. It didn't help me then so it's not helping them now."
"In college I learned that controlling your emotions, it really decides the end result of the match."
"Playing Naomi, if you look on a piece of paper, I have nothing to lose. She's won Slams, she's ranked higher, she beat me the last time we played. I know for sure I'll come out there nervous and put expectations on myself.
"It's about settling into the match and not losing that self-belief that I can win. If I lose that, then I have no chance."
Battle-tested after a string of tricky opponents, including having to save two match points against Muguruza in the Round of 16, Osaka sounded determined not to let it all be for naught.
"I think I fight the hardest in the finals," Osaka said. "I think that's where you sort of set yourself apart. It's the other person who won as many matches as you did. It's like the biggest fight."