With the polish of a habitual Grand Slam finalist, Naomi Osaka became a four-time Grand Slam winner Saturday night in Melbourne. Her clear familiarity with such rare air guided her through the manageable clutter along the 77-minute path of her latest Australian Open final. It proved decisive by 6-4, 6-3 against a first-time Slam finalist, the impressive Jennifer Brady. It cemented Osaka as the North Star of the women’s tennis moment.
It lent even more grandness to the vista of her future and ushered her further into exalted company. Sweeping her first four Grand Slam finals put her alongside only Monica Seles and Roger Federer in the Open era, a factoid she found “definitely something crazy to hear.” Holding four or more Grand Slam titles at a promise-packed age of 23 put her alongside Serena Williams, Venus Williams and Kim Clijsters among active players and within one of a batch of retired bright lights who include Althea Gibson and Maria Sharapova. Reaching 12-0 in Grand Slam quarterfinals, semifinals and finals put her — well, in a quirky, lofty category with only herself.
“She’s such an inspiration to us all, and what she’s doing for the game is amazing,” Brady said afterward to a crowd of 7,381, a crowd both limited and welcome because of the pandemic. “I hope the young girls are watching and inspired by what she’s doing.”
“This is going to sound really odd,” Osaka said later of her ultimate goal, “but hopefully I play long enough to play a girl who said that I was once her favorite player. That would be like the coolest thing that could happen to me.” Of course, the cool things that have happened already do not include supplanting Serena Williams, the queen Osaka outplayed in the semifinals, as the face of the sport.
“No,” Osaka said. “Not at all.”
Given her big-match dauntlessness that saw her wriggle out of two match points against Garbiñe Muguruza in the fourth round, it’s no wonder that as Osaka watched Brady’s final return of serve sail long to close out things by holding at love, Osaka beamed but did not exult. She had been there before and before and before.
Brady, 25, had not, even as she has bolted to her own heyday through 14 months festooned with long stays in the brackets at Brisbane, Dubai, Lexington, the U.S. Open and Melbourne. It has ushered her from No. 55 to No. 24, which still seems to groan as too low but owes to rankings methods recalculated for a pandemic. With her training relocated to Germany and her game reconstructed by coach Michael Geserer and trainer Daniel Pohl to become more “repeatable,” rather than fluctuating, this Pennsylvania-born Floridian who played two seasons for UCLA became the first former college player in a Grand Slam final in 37 years, since Kathy Jordan at the 1983 Australian Open. When she reviews her first go at such a lit-up stage, she might wince at a sequence late in the first set, including a set point straight out of an REM nightmare.
“I think I belong at this level,” she would say afterward. “I think winning a Grand Slam is totally achievable. It’s within reach.” She had exited the court thinking it felt “a little bit normal” whereas before she would have thought it “would feel like it’s just like going to Mars.”
When they had scrapped to 4-4 in their reprise of their taut, three-set, U.S. Open semifinal Osaka won last September, it seemed Brady might benefit from Osaka’s fresh realm as considerable favorite. “There actually was a lot of nerves with that,” Osaka would say. Her previous three Grand Slam finals, after all, had landed her opposite 23-time winner Serena Williams, two-time Slam winner Petra Kvitova and two-time Slam winner Victoria Azarenka. Now she had a rising, thriving opponent who had weathered without complaint a two-week hard quarantine upon arrival in January, a mattress propped against the wall to cushion practice shots.
Such a tricky situation called for cagey wisdom from a seasoned, traveled polyglot of 23, the daughter of a Japanese mother, a Haitian father and an American upbringing. Said Osaka, “I told myself before the match, I’m probably not going to play well, and I shouldn’t put that pressure on myself to play perfectly.”
The nerves did howl in a faulty first serve and a messy break early on, serving at 3-1, but Osaka maintained that capacity for what Brady called “high-risk tennis when it matters.” As Brady held a break point in the 4-4 game, Osaka sent a tremendous forehand winner to the sideline, then raked up the next two points from eight- and 10-shot exchanges for 5-4. Then, with Brady serving and leading 40-15, the set looking like a possible donnybrook, Brady shipped a rushed backhand just long and then double-faulted wide in the middle for deuce. With Osaka’s power and pace cramping Brady’s time out there, Osaka gained a break point and set point on a weirdness, a backhand that went high, twisted in the wind and hit the baseline, helping cause a Brady error, a forehand shoved long.
On that set point, Brady got a short-ball return and, from her renowned forehand wing, slapped it into the net.
“No, I actually forgot about every single one of [the errors], and then you just came and brought it up,” Brady said, using her capable wit in fielding a reporter’s question in the news conference. “But it’s okay.” She said such a blunder “happens maybe like one in 10 times, hopefully less. But it took a hit at my confidence a little bit just because I lost focus a little bit.”
The match then hurried 4-4 to 6-4, 4-0, after which Osaka never drifted into real trouble, especially given a serve that has reached the level of ferocious and continues budding past that. She led in aces 6-2 and trailed in unforced errors 31-24, and she moved on to try to master the two Grand Slam surfaces that have foiled her: Roland Garros clay and Wimbledon grass.
“So the funny thing is, I don’t look at expectations as a burden anymore,” she said hours later. “I feel like I’m at the point now that it’s something that I’ve worked for, you know. Like, people wouldn’t expect things of me if I hadn’t done things prior. If that makes sense.” She carried on, eventually saying, “Like, if someone expects me to do something, I would expect to do better than what they expect.”
“So many ‘expects’ in one … sentence,” said a woman clearly very good even when everybody expects.
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