Naomi Osaka has never lost a big grand slam match in her life. After piecing together another impressive run to her fourth final, her record after passing the fourth round of any major tournament now stands at 11-0.
Throughout the past two weeks in Melbourne, she has frequently been asked about that record. But each time it has been brought up, Osaka has pushed back. “It’s not really doing too much for me,” she said after her quarter-final victory over Hsieh Su-wei, shaking her head. “I would be more impressed if I didn’t lose in finals. If it says 10-0 in finals.”
While Osaka is correct that the sample size is small, whether or not she beats Jennifer Brady to win her second Australian Open title on Saturday, her record says much about her.
After her initial rise in 2018, Osaka has consolidated her place at the top of women’s tennis over the past six months, continually improving. She has upgraded her second serve, her backhand has now become an essential weapon and with every coming week she is learning more about how to harness her power efficiently, overwhelming opponents with her weight of shot, and carefully choosing her moments to unleash.
But her mental fortitude remains elemental to her game, a quality also fundamental to the way she sees herself: “For me, I have this mentality that people don’t remember the runners-up,” she said this week. “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.”
A win for Osaka truly would set her apart. In a sport filled with injuries, losses of form and crises of confidence, racking up several grand slam titles is difficult. No player, man or woman, has won a fourth grand slam since Maria Sharapova in 2012, who herself had waited four years after winning a third title aged just 20. Another slam would put Osaka level with Kim Clijsters, just one behind Sharapova and Martina Hingis. Her success is particularly striking due to the vast room for improvement that remains, particularly away from hard courts and at regular WTA events.
Although she will enter the final against Jennifer Brady as the favourite, the reality is far more complicated. In last year’s US Open semi-finals the two players produced a classic. Both competitors played at an extremely high level, serving bombs and putting immense pressure on the other to hold serve. Neither really buckled. After two hours, eight minutes and 31 games, they had broken each other just once each.
Earlier in the week, long before a rematch in the final seemed likely, Osaka unexpectedly referenced that match: “When I’m having a very hard time, I remember my match against Brady,” she said. “I feel like it helps me out a lot just because I’ve never had to physically and mentally fight so hard. I think about that match a lot sometimes.”
Brady’s rise has been one of the revelations of the past 12 months. A year ago, the 25 year-old was a former college player bouncing around the bottom half of the top 100. Ranked 52nd then, she has transformed herself into a top-level player after moving from the United States to train in Germany.
Since relocating she has secured her first WTA title, a grand slam semi-final and now her first final. Her record on hard courts is 29-7 (81%). Due to the abbreviated year of tennis and the current adjusted rankings allowing players to retain points since March 2019, her current ranking of 24 is not accurate. Under normal circumstances she would have finished 2020 ranked 11th.
In short, Brady is more than capable of winning on Saturday and that US Open match underlines the threat she will pose if she keeps her nerve in her first grand slam final. Brady possesses an excellent serve with a vicious, heavy topspin forehand and is a good athlete. She will again be aiming to pressure Osaka’s service games with her own consistent serving. Not many people are capable of that, which likely explains why it was so difficult for Osaka last year, and why it may be even tougher this time.