Australian Open: What you need to know
- When: Feb. 7 (U.S.)-Feb 21
- Schedule of play: Day 13 action
- Scoreboard: Follow here
- Draw: Singles & doubles
- Osaka's journey top the top
- Brady's career milestones
- 'It's like the biggest fight'
- Coaches Corner: Keys for Osaka and Brady
This was way, way back in the day, when Naomi Osaka and Jennifer Brady were playing junior tennis at a lower-level challenger event.
“I was, like, `Wow, she hits the ball huge. She’s going to be good,’” Brady said of Osaka, who was 2½ years younger.
Now here they are, the last two players standing in this uncertain season’s first major. Osaka, the No. 3 seed, reached the Australian Open final by defeating Serena Williams in straight sets. No. 22 Brady earned her first career Grand Slam final by outlasting Karolina Muchova in three. Make no mistake, though, these two belong.
The last time they held a Grand Slam on hardcourts, five months ago at the 2020 US Open, they reached the final four. Osaka, the eventual champion, prevailed in a rousing three-set semifinal match.
“It’s easily one of my most memorable matches,” she said. “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.”
Osaka, with 20 consecutive match wins, has become the WTA’s dominant player. Her 6-3, 6-4 victory over Williams had the look and feel of a torch-passing moment. Osaka played like the 2005 version of Serena (at the age of 23), the swift, powerful player who beat Maria Sharapova in the Australian Open semifinals and Lindsay Davenport in the final.
For the sixth time, Serena reached the final four at a major but failed to collect her record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title. When it was over, she paused, waved to the crowd and placed her hand on her heart before slowly walking into the tunnel at Rod Laver Arena.
Later, Serena was asked if she was saying farewell to Melbourne Park.
“I don’t know,” she said. “If I ever say farewell, I wouldn’t tell anyone.”
She was smiling when she said it, but after the eighth question of her press conference, concerning unforced errors, emotion seized her.
“I don’t know,” Serena said, getting up abruptly, tears in her eyes. “I’m done.”
Said Osaka, “I want her to play forever. That’s the little kid in me.”
In this era of post-Serena dominance, it’s been Osaka who has separated herself from the crowd of contenders. There seems to be a pattern developing here. With a victory over Brady, Osaka will have won:
- Four of the past nine contested Grand Slams. The other five will have gone to five different players.
- Four of the past eight majors in which she’s played.
- Four of the past six majors played on hardcourts.
Osaka won’t turn 24 until October, so she could have four majors (and possibly more) at the age of 23. For context, consider that Sharapova won her fourth major at 25, while Venus Williams and Justine Henin – both seven-time Grand Slam singles champions – were 21 when they won their fourth major. This is the kind of company Osaka is keeping.
More evidence that Osaka is a big-game performer: Half of her six WTA titles are Grand Slams.
All Brady has done Down Under is go through a harrowing 14-day, 24/7 lockdown – and produce the greatest result of her 25-year-old life. While seven women who were confined to their rooms for the duration managed to reach the third round, Brady was the only one to advance to the fourth – and far beyond.
How do you explain that? Discipline, of course.
“I didn’t watch one Netflix series just because I knew if I started something then I wouldn’t want to do anything else except just lay in bed and watch Netflix,” Brady explained. “FaceTiming lot with other players that were in the quarantine, Sloane Stephens … with Anett [Kontaveit] and Maria [Sakkari]. That made the time go by really quick.
“Yeah, I think it was more just trying to stay positive and know that there is worse things out there than being in a room.”
Brady came in with the fewest dropped games of any semifinalist, but Muchova managed to wrest away the second set.
“Well, it took a lot longer than I hoped for,” Brady said. “I was just so nervous. I couldn’t feel my legs. My arms were shaking. It was just point by point, point by point, and eventually I was able to close it out.
“[Osaka] just puts a lot of pressure on you to serve well, because she’s holding serve in, like, 45 seconds. She’s coming at you with a lot of power, so it also puts a lot of pressure on you to be aggressive and try to get the first strike. Otherwise you’re the one running, and I don’t want to be running.”
In her semifinal, Osaka closed with shocking force. After Serena broke serve to level the second set at 4-all, Osaka won the last eight points of the match.
Her record on the backside of Grand Slams is phenomenal: 4-0 in quarterfinals, 4-0 in semifinals, 3-0 in finals.
“I only played in three of them,” Osaka said of her finals record. “For me, I have this mentality that people don’t remember the runners-up. You might, but the winner’s name is the one that’s engraved. I think I fight the hardest in the finals.
“I think that’s where you sort of set yourself apart.”
Experts: Keys to the match
Backhand: “I think what Naomi has to do is hit her backhand down the line well. We all know how much Jenny Brady loves to run around her backhand, and when she does that, she leaves a bit of extra space on the other side of the court. Jen’s going to have to be careful about that.” – Alicia Molik, former World No. 8; commentor for 2021 Australian Open
Experience: “We all know what Osaka has accomplished. Her win over Serena Williams in the semifinals showed how much she can rise during the big moments. That experience might be the difference against a player who is on the big stage for the first time.” – Molik
Handle Brady’s power: “Naomi has to be very aware that Jen is going to keep hitting no matter what. Under pressure she’s going to keep going.” – Sam Smith, former world No. 55; current commentator for various networks
Resolve: “Jen is going to have to realize that Naomi doesn’t have those long downward spirals anymore. If she has a blip, and she will have one, it is not going to last very long. Jen needs to make sure she doesn’t lose focus.” – Smith
Serve variety: “I’d like to see Jen hit her slice serve as well. Naomi is nearly six feet, and I am not sure ow effective kick serves will be. Use that slice into Naomi’s body.” – Smith
Belief: “A lot could depend on how Jen wakes up in the morning and her confidence. Does she see herself as a Grand Slam winner? She is -- unlike Naomi, who at 14 or 15, people were saying, ‘She’s going to win Slams. She’s going to be the best in the world.’ -- new to this level of spotlight.” – Smith