Naomi Osaka vs Jennifer Brady: a Grand Slam champion and a first-time finalist playing for the Australian Open women’s singles title.
This may seem like the exact template of the last year’s final, when Sofia Kenin beat Garbine Muguruza to win her first Major. Her fellow American Brady will channel this underdog spirit on Saturday when she takes on Osaka, who is yet to lose a Grand Slam final in three attempts.
The last time they played was another massive Grand Slam match – the US Open semi-finals – and put on a show to remember over three sets. The US Open was a turning point for both players as Brady reached her first Major semi-final while Osaka began an unbeaten streak that has carried on and set forth her quiet determination she’s carrying into this final.
The 23-year-old Japanese player, who has won her last 20 matches, had a very interesting take on the final after she beat Serena Williams in a one-sided semi-final: “I have this mentality that people don’t remember the runners-up.”
Facts and figures ahead of Saturday’s Australian Open women’s final (x denotes seeding):
Naomi Osaka (JPN x3) v Jennifer Brady (USA x22)
Head-to-head: Osaka leads 2-1
2020 US Open (semi-final): Osaka bt Brady 7-6 (7/1), 3-6, 6-3
2018 Charleston (R64): Osaka bt Brady 6-4, 6-4
2014 New Braunfels (R32): Brady bt Osaka 6-4, 6-4
Osaka vs Brady fact-box
|Naomi Osaka||Jennifer Brady|
|World ranking||3|| 24|
|Career prize money||$17,770,234||$2,014,115|
|Best at Aus Open||Champion (2019)||Final (this year)|
|Coach||Wim Fissette||Michael Geserer|
|Sets dropped at the event||1||2|
It is certainly the fighting mentality she has shown in the three finals she has played so far. Her composure in the controversy-marred US Open 2018 final against Williams, fighting spirit in the 2019 Australian Open final against Petra Kvitova and resilience in the 2020 US Open final against Victoria Azarenka shined a light on just what an incredible player she is.
Another title will take her where no woman has reached in close to a decade – the first to win a fourth Grand Slam singles title since Maria Sharapova in 2012. Seen in the context of modern women’s tennis, it is a significant milestone. She will also be the first woman since Monica Seles to win her first four Grand Slam finals.
By all parameters, Osaka is hot favourite against a player making her Grand Slam final debut. The world No 3 has all the power and big weapons to neutralise Brady’s big serve and the more crucial experience.
The pair first clashed as juniors in Florida seven years ago when Brady won. Osaka has won both their matches since with their rivalry hitting new heights in the second of those at Flushing Meadows when the eventual champion prevailed 7-6 (7/1), 3-6, 6-3 in match dubbed by some as the best of the truncated 2020 season.
Slow and steady rise of Brady
The 25-year-old Brady has not faced a higher-ranked player in her run to the final, helped by the exits of world No 1 Ashleigh Barty and defending champion Sofia Kenin on her side of the draw. But the 22nd seed had also not lost a set until surviving a three-set thriller to Karolina Muchova in the semis, dropping fewer games on her way to the semi-finals than anyone else.
In a way, the final is just reward for a player who has become one of the most consistent performers in the women’s game over the past 12 months. That it has come in Australia – where four years ago she cracked the big time at the 2017 Australian Open by qualifying and reaching the last 16 – seems even more fitting.
The American, the last player standing among the 72 who were forced into hard quarantine with no time out for 14 days in Australia on arrival, has built up a solid form over the last three weeks and will carry that momentum in the final.
Brady knows she’s in for a fight in her first final against a player more experienced on the highest stage despite being two years younger. Yet, she has revelled in self-belief since her breakthrough in New York from, a far cry from the time she didn’t like tennis much and thought she could never be a pro.
Brady first picked up a racquet at the age of seven in her home town of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and was hooked, but it wasn’t until the family moved to Florida the following year that she began to flourish.
Warmer weather enabled more court time and Brady won a scholarship at the age of 10 to the Chris Evert Academy in Boca Raton. Brady had reached world No 36 in the junior rankings in 2012, but she harboured doubts, and thought about giving up.
“Other juniors my age were doing really well and having early success in the pros, playing Challenger events and winning them. And then I wasn’t even passing the first, second round of qualifying. That was really hard. I thought, ‘OK, maybe I’m not meant for this sport. Maybe I’m not good enough. I’ll go to college for four years and then I’ll find a real job.’”— Jennifer Brady
It was at college at UCLA that her relationship with the sport changed. Brady was named as the Pac-12 Freshman/Newcomer of the Year in 2013-’14 and made a Grand Slam qualifying debut at the 2014 US Open.
The following year she broke into the top 200 and in 2016 made her main-draw WTA debut at Rio de Janeiro, reached her first WTA quarter-final in Guangzhou and rose to the fringes of the top 100.
Then came her dream run at the 2017 Australian Open and in 2019 came her first wins over top-20 players before she teamed up with German coach Michael Geserer. Brady has barely looked back since. At Brisbane in January 2020, she beat Sharapova and Barty – her first win over a top-10 player.
When the tour resumed following the Covid-19 shutdown, Brady won her first WTA title in Lexington and made her first Slam semi-final at the US Open.
American great Evert, who spotted her talent early said that Brady always had skill and power, her mental approach had been lacking; a chink that’s now close to fixed.
Brady’s new psychological steel also came to the fore during hard quarantine on arrival in Melbourne. It has also taken her to what is most certainly the first of many Grand Slam finals. And against a player like Osaka, she will play with the fearlessness of someone having nothing to lose.
Whether she can win on her first try like Osaka or not, this will be a match to watch out for and at the early stages of a potential long-lasting rivalry. Irrespective of who holds aloft the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup on Saturday, the final promises to be a cracker.
With AFP Inputs
Naomi Osaka’s path to the final:
1st rd: bt Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (RUS) 6-1, 6-2
2nd rd: bt Caroline Garcia (FRA) 6-2, 6-3
3rd rd: bt Ons Jabeur (TUN x27) 6-3, 6-2
4th rd: bt Garbine Muguruza (ESP x14) 4-6, 6-4, 7-5
Quarter-final: bt Hsieh Su-wei (TPE) 6-2, 6-2
Semi-final: bt Serena Williams (USA x10) 6-3, 6-4
Jennifer Brady’s path to the final:
1st rd: bt Aliona Bolsova (ESP) 6-1, 6-3
2nd rd: bt Madison Brengle (USA) 6-1, 6-2
3rd rd: bt Kaja Juvan (SLO) 6-1, 6-3
4th rd: bt Donna Vekic (CRO x28) 6-1, 7-5
Quarter-final: bt Jessica Pegula (USA) 4-6, 6-2, 6-1
Semi-final: bt Karolina Muchova (CZE x25) 6-4, 3-6, 6-4
The match will be broadcast on Sony Sports Network in India, starting at 2 pm IST.