Naomi Osaka vs. Serena Williams would have made for a more high-profile Australian Open final, but anybody who remembers last year’s US Open semifinal between Osaka and Jen Brady shouldn’t be too disappointed that this is the championship match in Melbourne instead.
That semifinal in New York, ultimately won by Osaka in three back-and-forth sets, topped my list of the 10 best matches of 2020. It had full-blooded shot-making, stubborn comebacks from both players, and a poignant subtext: Osaka knew that if she lost, she wouldn’t have a chance to display her seventh and final mask, and wouldn’t get to remind the world of 12-year-old Tamir Rice’s life and death.
Coming into the Australian Open, I wondered if Osaka would be quite as determined to win without that extra motivation. It turns out she was, and she has grown even more confident in her ability to beat any opponent, and come back from any deficit. In the fourth round, she saved two match points and won the last four games against Garbiñe Muguruza, and in the semifinals she was clearly the better player against Serena.
As for Brady, I wondered if, after her breakout 2020, the 25-year-old was due for a fall back to earth and a regression to her normal level. Instead, she’s shown that her meteoric rise last summer was no fluke. As Brady says, the more she hits against the top players, the more she realizes that they can’t do anything with the ball that she can’t do.
Brady is two years older than Osaka, but they’ve been aware of each other since their junior days in Florida. Brady still remembers their first meeting as pros, at a lower-tier event in 2014: “I was, like, ‘Wow, she hits the ball huge. She's gonna be good.’ I mean, I was, like, ‘OK, she's got something special.’”
She was right. While Brady won that first meeting, in Texas, Osaka has won both of their WTA-level matches. Who is more likely to win the third and biggest so far?
Osaka has won all three of her previous major finals. In fact, she’s 11-0 once she reaches the quarters at a Slam. From a pure shot-making standpoint, she has the advantage, over Brady and just about anyone else at the moment. If the ball is in the middle of the court and in her strike zone, especially on the forehand side, she’s going to belt it for a winner. And when she falls behind in her service games, she has confidence that she can serve her way out of trouble.
Brady can gain take that advantage away from Osaka if she can turn the rallies into running contests, and if she can work her way forward. Her first job will be to keep Osaka from dictating points with her return, and getting a chance to hit forehands in her strike zone from a stationary position. That’s a big ask right now, and while Brady managed it for one set in New York, she couldn’t keep it going for two.
I picked Osaka at the start of this tournament because she didn’t seem to believe she could lose. Nothing that has happened since has changed her mind. Winner: Osaka