Dominant Down Under, Osaka Wins Fourth Major Title

Naomi Osaka (photo: Natasha Morello/Tennis Australia)

MELBOURNE/WASHINGTON, February 20, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Naomi Osaka has been perfect in Grand Slam finals. For that matter, she’s been perfect on court for the past year. Simply unbeatable, and arguably the best clutch player of her generation.

On a breezy Saturday evening in Melbourne, the Japanese superstar gave a dominating performance to win her fourth Grand Slam and second Australian Open title. The World No. 3 Osaka became the first woman to since Monica Seles in 1991 to win her first four major finals after completing her 6-4, 6-3 triumph over No. 22 seed Jennifer Brady of the United States. (The only man to achieve the same feat is Roger Federer, who won his first seven major finals starting in 2002.)

Although it will not be remembered as the best of major title matches, over the one hour and 17 minutes it lasted, Osaka shined on Rod Laver Arena when it mattered most. She hit all the right shots, displayed agile footwork and showed tremendous focus. Winning is becoming a habit for Osaka, born in Japan of a Japanese mother and Haitian father, who now lives in Los Angeles.

When the final ended, Osaka celebrated with a simple nod and a smile, then went to the net and hugged her fallen opponent. She  has been lights out in Grand Slam quarterfinals, semifinals and finals, compiling an undefeated a 12-0 win-loss record.

“Just to have this energy, it really means a lot,” Osaka said during the trophy presentation, before an audience of 7,381, which was limited in size because of the pandemic. “Thank you so much for coming. I feel like playing a Grand Slam right now is a super privilege. And it’s something that I won’t take for granted.”

Winning her second Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup was most deserving, and with it Osaka will move to No. 2 when the new WTA rankings are updated next week. The third-seeded Osaka has drawn level with Kim Clijsters with four Grand Slams won and among active players, only the Williams sisters – Serena (23) and Venus (7) – have won more majors.

While nine of the last 14 women’s Grand Slam singles titles had gone to different women, on Saturday, from the outset, Osaka made sure Brady would not become the 10th. For the second time in her career, Osaka has won back-to-back majors. She won the 2018 US Open and followed it by winning the 2019 Australian Open. This time, she won the 2020 US Open and backed it up by winning Down Under five months later after skipping the 2020 French Open. Now, she’s won four of the last nine Grand Slams – including four of the last six on hard courts – and her trophy collection includes more major crowns (4) than WTA tour-level hardware (3).

While Osaka started slowly against Serena Williams, admittedly nervous while facing her childhood idol, against Brady her willpower and execution were greater and there wasn’t much that the former UCLA champion could do to stop it. Osaka fired six aces, hit 16 winners and 24 unforced errors, while Brady put up two aces, 15 winners and committed 31 unforced errors. Additionally, Osaka also converted four of five break-point opportunities. She was unstoppable.

“I honestly just told myself before the match, I’m probably not going to play well,” said Osaka, during her very well-attended post-match press conference. “I shouldn’t put that pressure on myself to play perfectly but just go out there and fight for every point. You know, the outcome is whatever it wants to be, but I can live with the fact that I tried very hard.”

The 23-year-old Osaka earned a berth in the final by with a defining 6-3, 6-4 victory over Williams, while Brady needed five match points to beat Karolina Muchova, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4, to become a first-time major finalist. The two played an exciting match against each other in last year’s US Open semifinals, won in three sets by Osaka. This time, Osaka completed her business in two.

Osaka’s been unbeatable since last year’s Fed Cup, where she lost to Sara Sorribes Tormo. Over the past 12 months, she’s won all 21 matches she has played, including garnering her third major title at the US Open. During the Aussie fortnight, she made it through a tough draw – saving match points against Garbiñe Muguruza in the fourth round – en route to winning her fourth Grand Slam.

“I have this mentality that people don’t remember the runners-up,” Osaka said after beating Williams on Thursday. “You might, but the winner’s name is the one that’s engraved. I think I fight the hardest in the finals. I think that’s where you sort of set yourself apart.”

Brady, 25, who won her first WTA tour-level title last August in Lexington, Ky., was a late developer after coming up through the collegiate ranks and played two years at UCLA. She was obliged to undergo 14 days of strict lockdown quarantine when she arrived in Australia. In fact, Brady couldn’t leave her room to practice after someone on her flight to Melbourne tested positive for COVID-19 upon entering the country. It’s surprising Brady reached the final under those circumstances considering she was behind in her training.

“Even before quarantine, I didn’t think I would be where I am right now, totally not,” said the 22nd-seeded Brady after her semifinal win Thursday.

“I’ve definitely been practice hard. I think I’ve earned the right to be playing in a Grand Slam final on Saturday. I just think it’s crazy to believe. …

“On Saturday, I’ll definitely be nervous 100 percent but there’s no hiding it. I just have to embrace it and enjoy the moment.”

In the opening game, Osaka made a big statement with her two-ace and service winner hold to love – and Brady did show signs of nervousness Osaka had a plan and a strategy that included hitting powerful forehand returns and changing the direction of the ball. Her athletic ability and fitness – and mental fortitude – were solid. It only got better as the match progressed. From 4-all in the first set, Osaka won six straight games and there was no looking back.

“I think the thing that I’m most proud of is how mentally strong I’ve become,” Osaka said. “I used to be really up and down. I had a lot of doubts in myself. But I think the quarantine process and seeing everything that’s going on in the world, it put a lot into perspective. I used to weigh my entire existence on if I won or lost a tennis match. That’s just not how I feel anymore.”

By the end of the match, it became evident that it was Osaka who showed the most calm and determination – brimming with confidence – and she was able to enjoy the moment just a little bit more.

“For me, my feelings, I’m really happy right now,” Osaka said. She was in a celebratory mood, sipping bubbly from a Champagne flute while seated at the podium. “I think there is a moment that I have been working for during the entire preseason. You know, it’s really weird when you get to that final point, you start trembling because you can thin of the ‘what-ifs.’ So, for me, I feel like I’m living in a ‘what-if’ right now.”

As for Brady, there will be better days ahead. “Not the way that I wanted it,” she said smiling during her press conference. “But yeah, I would say it was exciting to be out there. You know, I enjoyed every single minute playing in front of fans in my first Grand Slam final, and I hope there is many more.”

After Osaka secured match point to secure her fourth major title, Hall of Famer great Chris Evert, who won two Australian Open titles of her own in the 1980s and analyzed the match for ESPN’s broadcast in North America, said of Osaka: “She’s breaking away from the pack. Something is changing, something is shifting – and it’s all about Naomi.”

With Osaka ready to grab the spotlight and take on all comers, the future for women’s pro tennis looks very bright indeed.