Naomi Osaka achieved what has not been done by a player since 2012 – add a fourth career Grand Slam title to their name.
Naomi Osaka, on Saturday, beat Jennifer Brady 6-4, 6-3 at the Australian Open doing what was expected of her – win a Major final as the pre-match favourite.
Both these statements, in the context of recent women’s tennis history, are significant.
The first shows rare consistency in the women’s game where glorious uncertainty has thrived over the last few years. The second subverts an emerging pattern in women’s Grand Slam finals where the popular favourite, by conventional metrics such as past experience and pedigree, has eventually faltered.
Osaka is now on a 21-match winning streak, winning her second straight Grand Slam after the US Open in 2020 (she skipped French Open). Osaka is the first woman since Monica Seles to win her first four Major finals. The statistics after this win are plenty and impressive: only the fourth active woman to win more than three Majors, fourth straight year with a Grand Slam and such.
Yet, what sets this title apart is that it’s the first of her four finals where she was the overwhelming favourite. This brings a whole new kind of pressure, even for someone who is as used to the spotlight as Osaka has begun to be.
In her last three finals – which came against players who were already Major champions themselves – she showcased her composure and complete game, marking her as a star of the game. In Melbourne on Saturday – against a first-time finalist Brady who had pushed her hard in their last match – Osaka showed she has something that is even rarer and more remarkable: consistency at the highest level and handling the favourite’s tag.
Osaka's four Grand Slam finals
|US Open 2018||Serena Williams||6–2, 6–4|
|Australian Open 2019||Petra Kvitová||7–6(7–2), 5–7, 6–4|
|US Open 2020||Victoria Azarenka||1–6, 6–3, 6–3|
|Australian Open 2021||Jennifer Brady||6–4, 6–3|
The 23-year-old is unbeaten at Majors when she goes past the fourth round – 12/12 record in quarterfinals, semifinals and finals. Even in her young career, that’s elite conversion rate in big matches.
Consider this: Which is the last Grand Slam where the women’s champion was someone who was expected to be one of the contenders? Perhaps French Open 2018, when Simona Halep won as top seed and the 2017 Australian Open, when Serena Williams won her last Major. Now, Osaka is added to the list.
For a player of Osaka’s caliber to get this big-match consistency – the ability to stay true to expectations that she herself has built up – is immense for her and the women’s game.
Osaka’s big-match weapon
The biggest weapon Osaka has shown through the Australian Open – as strong as her groundstrokes have been – is her mentality. Before the final, she said: “I have this mentality that people don’t remember the runners-up. I think I fight the hardest in the finals. I think that’s where you sort of set yourself apart.”
But this did not come to her easy. Osaka has had to cultivate this mentality the hard way, riding a very public and emotional rollercoaster from her breakthrough in 2018.
Interestingly, her showing at the last three Australian Opens is a microcosm of this journey.
2019: Osaka fought back against Kvitova from squandering championship points in the second set and being pushed to a decider, to win a second straight Grand Slam.
2020: Osaka was stunned by 15-year-old Coco Gauff in the third round, capping a string of pre-quarterfinal exits at her previous Slams.
2021: Osaka entered the tournament on a winning streak and completed the hard court Major double again with a redoubtable performance.
The third seed dropped just one set across her seven matches in a very tough draw, playing challenging opponents right from the first round. But if anything, the lone dropped set was the biggest confident boost she could have had as she saved match points to beat last year’s finalist Garbine Muguruza. Her relaxed approach and relentless attack after going match point down was more lethal than when she was on song. When she clinched that match there was no loud celebration, just a small smile to herself as if to assure herself that she can still win points when she simply has to.
Naomi Osaka’s path to the title:
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
FINAL: bt Jennifer Brady (USA x22) 6-4, 6-3
There was a similar moment in the final against Brady, where her serve came under the pump after an early exchange of breaks. She was down a break point at 4-4 in the first set. How did she respond? By winning 28 of the next 40 points – and reeling off six games in a row. There was little scope to come back from 0-4 down in the second for Brady.
This in turn was a hark back to the US Open final against Victoria Azarenka, when she came back from set and a break down to win her third Grand Slam, looking calm as ever. Talk about clutch tennis.
Much has already been said about how the pandemic pause in 2020 helped Osaka find her rhythm again. She didn’t play the French Open and took another break, which has not stopped her momentum in any way as the 21-match streak indicates. Whether she can carry on like this, across the clay and grass court season remains to be seen. But for now, she has honed her ability to dig deep and find a way to win matches consistently, which in the landscape of women’s tennis today is enough to be excited about.
The evolution of Osaka from a tennis perspective is there for all to see. But it can also be seen in the finer details. When she won her first title at Indian wells in 2018, she struggled to give a winner’s speech out of awkwardness. Her speech and press conference after lifting the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup this time was different: she first made Brady smile with a lovely joke, praised her team, acknowledged the joy of playing in front of fans and then, in the press conference, spoke about wanting to play a young girl in the future who would think of her as a favourite.
In the last year, Osaka has found and raised her voice for herself and others. More importantly, she has also raised her tennis to a level where she is not just the future of the sport: she is the star, in the here and now.