In the midst of this unending pandemic and a scattered, disjointed year of tennis, there has been one consistent sight throughout: Naomi Osaka exhibiting her greatness under suffocating pressure. She is already a star whose profile is in the process of transcending her sport but, most importantly, has the resumé to back it up. In a tight, gripping two-set match that saw her struggle and then soar, Osaka became a four-time grand slam champion by beating Jennifer Brady 6-4, 6-3 to win her second game.
The achievements she has unlocked in the process are startling: Osaka is now the first woman to win her first four grand slam finals of her career since Monica Seles in 1991. She is the seventh woman in the Open era to save match point en route to the title after her fourth-round comeback against Garbiñe Muguruza from 3-5, 15-40, in which she saved the first match point with a 119mph ace and hit zero unforced errors in the final 22 points. Only 15 women in the Open era have won four majors and she now stands shoulder to shoulder with Aranxta Sánchez Vicario and Kim Clijsters.
These have been such career-defining months for Osaka, in which she pushed on from her first two grand slam triumphs and consolidated her spot at the top of the sport. She will only rise to No 2 thanks to the temporarily altered rankings during the pandemic – the ranking points from No 1 Ashleigh Barty’s 2019 Roland Garros triumph remain on her ranking – but she is the best player in the world.
There is more. Osaka is now 33-2 (94%) in hardcourt grand slams over the past two and a half years, winning four of the last six titles on the surface. She has won her last 21 matches excluding walkovers. Who knows if she even remembers what it feels like to lose – that is a sensation she has not felt in over a year, when two poor losses, including one to a 15-year-old Coco Gauff at this very tournament, forced her to reevaluate her entire approach to the sport.
Osaka’s previous grand slam finals had placed her as the youngster against far more experienced multiple champions in Serena Williams, Petra Kvitova and Victoria Azarenka, and so she had openly wondered before the match whether entering a final as favourite for the first time would be even more difficult.
After a nervous start from Brady, 25, who was playing in her first slam final, it became clear early on that the pressure was intense. From 3-1 up, Osaka suddenly looked frail. She began to catch her toss in the wind and miss first serves, and it was Brady who controlled the rallies. As she radiated energy and verve, it began a series of crucial games that Brady led but could not close.
Brady broke back and forced Osaka to 15-30 on her serve at 3-3, a deficit Osaka scuppered with two consecutive first serves. At 4-4 30-30, Brady produced a moment of sheer inspiration, chasing down a drop shot from Osaka and flicking a single handed backhand over her head. Osaka saved the break point with a crosscourt forehand winner boldly struck in the middle of an intense rally. Somehow, despite continuing to miss first serves, she survived
While serving to stay in the set at 4-5 to Osaka, Brady swept to a 40-15 lead by landing first serves and controlling the exchanges. Osaka saved the first game point with an excellent, deep backhand second serve return, then Brady double faulted on a bold 92mph second serve. A few moments later, Brady netted a routine forehand to lose her fourth point in a row. And that was mostly it. From 4-4 30-40, Osaka rolled through five games in a row to establish a strong lead and despite great resolve at the close from Brady, she comfortably sealed the match.
That is the thing with the most cold-blooded champions – they usually only offer up limited chances and if an opponent fails to take them, they will make you pay. “She doesn’t hesitate,” said her coach, Wim Fissette, in an interview with TENNiS Magazine Netherlands. “When she has to serve for a match, she knows she’s going to pull it off. When she sees the finish line, she’ll accelerate. That’s when she plays her best tennis.”
Regardless of how it ended, the final remains a remarkable achievement for Brady. While most of her rivals spent their quarantine period in Australia training each day as they calmly maintained their form and fitness, she did not see beyond the walls of her hotel room for two weeks. Despite that clear disadvantage, it was she who remained there on the final day of the event, battling hard for her first grand slam title