The all-American quarter-final battle at the Australian Open saw Jennifer Brady come back from a set down to charge past her good friend Jessica Pegula, 4-6 6-2 6-1, and secure her place in the semi-final where she will meet Karolina Muchova, who upset World No 1 Ash Barty earlier on Wednesday.
In the beginning of the match I felt the pressure from her, she’s such an aggressive player and once you give her a short ball the point’s over, you’re running side to side. I felt I was doing a little too much of that. I was telling myself ‘OK, maybe I need to change something, maybe I need to play with more spin’... I was looking to just push her back, try to get more on the offence on my own side of the court, and then I think I played a really good third set.” Jennifer Brady
“I think I felt really good out there physically,” Brady said, during her post-match press conference. “I could maybe see on the other side of the net, maybe Jess was a little bit tired there.
“That definitely helped me mentally.
“It just gave me a little bit more confidence knowing that I’m doing pretty good, maybe she’s a little bit tired, now is my chance to really step up here and take advantage of that.”
With Serena Williams facing Naomi Osaka in the other semi-final, AO21 could have another all-American title match on Saturday, 4 years after Serena beat her sister Venus for the 2017 championship.
Having long flown under the radar, 25-year-old Brady also reached the semi-finals of the US Open while victory over Pegula, the 61st-ranked surprise quarter-finalist, avenged a defeat at the Western & Southern Open last year.
“I hope I make it a habit [making semi-finals],” she said on court, beaming after the one-hour, 42-minute encounter. “Hopefully I have a new habit of making finals.”
One of the most in-form players out there, Brady has now claimed victory in 21 of her past 27 matches, 18 of those in straight sets, but she was a picture of anguish early in her meeting with Pegula.
On a stifling day at Rod Laver Arena, however, the No 22 seed gradually dialled in her power game before crushing the unseeded Pegula in the final set.
One of the 72 players in hard quarantine before the tournament, Brady was unable to train on courts for 5 hours a day like the rest of the field, but there was no sign of her flagging in the heat.
After taking the second set, Brady was brimming with confidence and raced away with the match in a maelstrom of shot-making.
“I’ve been putting in the hard yards in the gym with my trainer Daniel,” she said. “We’re getting better every single day, every day is another opportunity.”
Pegula, the daughter of billionaire sports team owners, bowed out after reaching her first Grand Slam quarter-final.
“I think I’ve proved that I have the level to play with the top players now, which I think is such a stepping stone,” Pegula said.
Her aggression threatened to produce another upset, but her serve faltered in the final set and the hard-returning Brady capitalised.
Brady had arrived in the quarters having conceded only 17 games, the least of anyone in the women’s draw, and had dropped her serve just twice.
Pegula doubled that total, breaking Brady 4 times on the day, but the No 22 seed converted 7 of her 10 break points to ultimately storm to victory.
At the start, though, against the 26-year-old Pegula, she could not buy a first serve, and in the 5th game she only landed 27 per cent as she struggled to stay with her more measured opponent.
Overplaying and pressing for too much, too soon, Brady felt the contest rapidly spiralling out of her control.
Pegula got off to a flying start, winning her first 8 service points of the match while breaking Brady in the 3rd game en route to a 4-2 lead.
Brady, though, slammed 4 aces in a row to hold for 4-3 before levelling the set at 4-4, but she could not maintain her momentum and was stymied in the following game, dropping serve with a double-fault before Pegula coolly served out the opener.
With 17 unforced errors in the first set for Brady, Pegula kept hers down to only 7 miscues.
“In the beginning of the match I felt the pressure from her, she’s such an aggressive player and once you give her a short ball the point’s over, you’re running side to side,” Brady said.
“I felt I was doing a little too much of that. I was telling myself ‘OK, maybe I need to change something, maybe I need to play with more spin’.
“It was hotter today so I think the court was bouncing a lot more, which was favouring me a bit more than her.
“I was looking to just push her back, try to get more on the offence on my own side of the court and then I think I played a really good third set.”
Brady turned around the second set, lowering her unforced errors to 6, matching her winner count, and pulled her first serve percentage to a more manageable 57 percent to sweep to a 5-2 lead and breaking Pegula to love to level at a set apiece.
In the decider, Pegula gritted out a break on her 5th chance in the first game, but that proved to be a minor blip for Brady, who broke back straight away, and held for 2-1 with 2 consecutive aces.
Brady got just under half of her first serves into play, but when she did, she won 82 percent of those points, and went 12-for-12 in the third set.
Striking ferocious forehands and steadily improving her backhand, Brady forced errors from Pegula as she reeled off 6 straight games in the final set, holding to love to close the match out over her compatriot and friend.
“I think today I came out and was maybe pressing a little bit too much, trying to overplay, and was making a few unforced errors in the beginning of the first set,” said Brady.
“I was able to find my way towards the end of the first, but unfortunately got broken, then was a little bit frustrated, lost the first set.
“I found my way in the second set, just playing more aggressive on my terms.
“I think towards the end of the third I was just really dialled in, tunnel vision, just kept going for my shots, playing aggressive.”
Should Brady gain the better of the Czech Muchova, she will have reached her first Grand Slam final without facing a top-25 ranked opponent.
”She’s crafty,” said Brady, looking ahead to Muchova. “She looks to move forward, has an all-court game.
“She’s really athletic. I hope it will be a good, competitive match. Yeah, I’m looking forward to it.”
Thursday will be the first time she will play a major semi-final with fans in the stands after Melbourne’s lockdown restrictions were eased on Wednesday.
“Oh yeah, I’m delighted,” she said. “In New York it was an empty stadium, so it’ll be a new atmosphere here playing for me in the semi-finals of a Grand Slam playing in front of fans so I’m really looking forward to it.”