Naomi Osaka captured her second Australian Open title on Saturday evening at Melbourne Park when she outplayed Jennifer Brady, 6-4 6-3, in a thrilling final that lasted an hour and 17 minutes.
I want to thank you guys [the fans]. Thank you for coming and watching. It feels really incredible. I didn’t play my last Grand Slam with fans so just to have this energy it really means a lot. Thank you for opening your hearts and your arms towards us. For sure I feel like playing a Grand Slam right now is a super privilege and it’s something I won’t take for granted. Naomi Osaka
Both came into the match as, arguably, the two hottest players on the women’s tour since the action resumed last summer.
Osaka lauded Brady for her abilities and hard work in her acceptance speech.
“We played in the semis of the US Open, so a couple months ago,” Osaka said. “I told everyone that would listen that you’re gonna be a problem, and I was right.
“For me, it’s really hard to play you, and to see your growth over the last couple months is really cool.”
Brady, who went through a 14-day hard quarantine before the Australian Open, had strung together 22 match-wins, including a title at Lexington in August, but it was Osaka who played like the more experienced player on this occasion.
Not that it all went Osaka’s way, though, and the Japanese had also benefitted from a good deal of luck.
After nearly exiting less than a week ago to Garbiñe Muguruza in the 4th round, saving 2 match points in the process, she then had to get past the tricky Su-Wei Hsieh and Serena Williams.
Osaka powered her way her 4th Grand Slam title leaving little doubt that she is the Empress of the hard courts, extending her winning streak to 21, all on that surface, in a run that included claiming the US Open last September.
“I’d like to thank my team. I’ve been with them too long, a month and some change,” Osaka said after the match. “They’re like my family.
“They’re the ones with me through my training, through my matches, through my nervous talks before my matches, and I’m really appreciative towards them. This one’s for you.”
What began as a tight battle on Rod Laver Arena turned into a lopsided affair as Osaka won 6 straight games to pocket the first set and take a a commanding 4-0 lead in the second before Brady pulled things back a tad.
Osaka appeared relaxed at the get-go, striking a potent serve out wide that she thought was an ace, only to discover it was a fault and then thumped 2 aces on the way to a love hold.
Brady raced to 40-0 in her opening service game, but what happened next foretold of the struggle that was to come as the 25-year-old eventually held at deuce.
There was no escape, however, in her next service game when the American was broken to love, helped by 2 double-faults.
Osaka let slip a game point, then delivered a double-fault of her own, to aid the break-back, and when Brady held to love, the score was level at 3-3.
Suddenly, Osaka was on the back foot at 15-30 before regaining the offensive, and she dug out a pivotal hold for 4-3.
Brady’s first serve percentage hovered around 40, before she found first serves for 4-4, and the contest looked set to produce a classic.
Both players were now engineering stunning shots, with Brady scrambling to send a lob over Osaka for a break point, but her opponent responded with a massive forehand to escape and eventually hold.
On course to level again, leading 40-15, Osaka’s massive second-serve return perhaps unsettled the American and, as she attempted a bold second serve at 40-30, she missed it wide.
Osaka, instead of that power, resorted to defence to manufacture a set point with a crazy defensive lob that prompted another miss, and a rattled Brady conceded the set when her short forehand found the net while the Japanese was left stranded.
Using a lethal mix of power play and nifty defence, the Japanese World No 3 had hung on for 4-4 then, aided by her countering, broken Brady after she relinquished a 40-15 advantage, and the American World No 24 visibly sagged.
Despite a brief rally, Osaka closed out proceedings with ease, starting the final game with a gutsy forehand down the line.
Both players struggled with their first-serve percentage, although Osaka shaded matters on first-serve and second-serve points tallied, while hitting 1 more winner and 7 fewer unforced errors.
Landing only 48 per cent of first serves, Osaka had a higher winning percentage of both first and second serves than Brady, 73 per cent and 55 per cent respectively, compared to her opponent’s 62 per cent and 42 per cent.
Osaka has often said how much she loves the big occasion and her record in Grand Slam finals suggests as much, now a perfect 4-0.
“I want to thank you guys [the fans],” Osaka to the fans during the trophy presentation, cradling the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup.
“Thank you for coming and watching. It feels really incredible. I didn’t play my last Grand Slam with fans so just to have this energy it really means a lot.
“Thank you for opening your hearts and your arms towards us. For sure I feel like playing a Grand Slam right now is a super privilege and it’s something I won’t take for granted.”
“Thank you for this opportunity.”
Osaka has now won 4 of the past 9 Grand Slams, with the other 5 titles going to 5 different players.
Incredibly, 4 of her 7 WTA titles are majors as she becomes the 16th woman in the 53 years of the Open era to win 4 Grand Slam singles titles, and only the 4th active player alongside 39-year-old Serena Williams (23), 40-year-old Venus Williams (7) and Kim Clijsters (4), who is 37.
For Brady, the silver salver may not be the trophy the 24th seed pictured for herself, but for a player ranked outside the world’s top 50 this time last year, she has much to be proud of.
Brady’s journey Down Under began with in hard 24/7 quarantine and, despite limited practice and matches before the start of the Australian Open, she was 1 of 7 women who reached the 3rd round, but the only one to advance to round 4 and, ultimately, her first Grand Slam final.
“First I would like to congratulate Naomi on another Grand Slam title,” Brady said during the trophy presentation. “She’s such an inspiration to us all and what she’s doing for the game is amazing in getting the sport out there.
“I hope young girls at home are watching and inspired by what she’s doing.
“Another GS title. Obviously, you guys are doing something special,” Brady added to Osaka’s team. “She’s only getting better.”
Later, in her post-match press conference Brady said: “This week ,or these couple weeks coming in here, and making the finals here, after making the semis at the US Open, I think just proves to myself that it’s totally achievable week in, week out.
“There may be great weeks, there may be bad weeks, but I think that if I approach every single one the same, there are going to be a lot more good weeks than bad weeks.”
Brady leaves Melbourne Park having won 22 of her past 29 matches on tour, 18 of these coming in straight sets, and is now guaranteed to make her top 20 debut on Monday when she climbs to No 13.
“I think I belong at this level,” Brady said. “I think winning a Grand Slam is totally achievable. It’s within reach.
“You know, playing out there, obviously I was nervous, didn’t go my way, but at the same time coming off court, I was, like, ‘OK, that feels a little bit normal’.”
About Osaka, Brady observed: “I don’t think there is something that’s intangible about her.
“She’s human, like the rest of us in this room. She’s just, you know, brings out her best in the big moments.
“She knows what she’s doing out there. She’s confident in herself, her game, her team.”
Brady is among the field preparing to play in the Adelaide International next week.