Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 21, 2021

On Top Of The World By Winning Down Under

By now, the lesson should have been learned by every other woman with dreams of lifting the trophy at the end of one of the four major tennis tournaments. If you are going to beat Naomi Osaka at a Grand Slam event, you’d better do it in the first week. As the 23-year-old proved once again over the past fortnight in Melbourne, once play at her sports’ most important, career-defining tournaments moves past the opening rounds and into the decisive second week of action, once the pressure is greatest and the stakes are highest, Osaka is unstoppable.

With her straight set, 6-4, 6-3 victory over Jennifer Brady on Saturday, Osaka captured her second Australian Open and fourth Grand Slam title, putting her third among active women players, behind only the twenty-three and seven of the Willliams sisters, Serena and Venus, respectively. Even more impressively, she has won her first four Grand Slam finals, a mark matched in the Open Era only by Monica Seles three decades ago and Roger Federer in the early years of this century. In claiming those championships Osaka has assembled a perfect 12-0 record in Grand Slam quarterfinals, semifinals, and finals. Beat her in the first week or forget about lifting the trophy.

In keeping with that theme, Osaka’s trip through the Australian Open bracket was not an unimpeded march to glory. After unsurprising straight set victories in her first three matches, she faced Garbine Muguruza in the round of 16 at the end of the tournament’s first week. The Spaniard’s game fell off after she won the French Open in 2016 and Wimbledon a year later, but prior to the pandemic she had returned to form, advancing to the finals in Melbourne last year. The pair split the first two sets, then in the decider Muguruza appeared about to pull off the upset, up 5-3 and holding a pair of break points – match points – against Osaka’s serve. But Osaka saved both, the last with a deep volley that pulled Muguruza wide, with her return sailing long. Then Osaka put the hammer down, closing out that game and winning the next three games – breaking Muguruza twice – to seal the match.

With play advancing to the quarterfinals Osaka was in her major tournament element. She dominated the unpredictable Su-Wei Hsieh 6-2, 6-2, before dispatching Serena Williams 6-3, 6-4 in the semifinals. That match was the first meeting between the two since their combustible 2018 U.S. Open final, when Williams’s inexcusable meltdown in the middle of the match turned the eventual awards ceremony from the joyous celebration of a first Grand Slam title that Osaka deserved into an ugly mess. Happily, there was nothing like that in Melbourne on Wednesday, just a methodical straight set win by Osaka.

That result, and the simple act of Williams tapping her heart and waving to the crowd as she left to a standing ovation after once again falling short in her quest for a twenty-fourth major title led to rampant media speculation that she might be considering retirement. Whether or not she ever ties Margaret Court’s record for major wins (a record that includes eleven Australian titles, most won in a time when the enormous distance to Melbourne kept many top American and European players from participating in the tournament), Serena’s legacy both on and off the court is secure. Even now, at 39 and with a 3-year-old daughter, she remains the queen of the women’s game. And while she has not won a Grand Slam event since 2017, she has reached four finals since returning to tennis after recovering from an extremely difficult pregnancy. That doesn’t seem like the track record of a player ready to retire.

But if Serena is still the queen, the women’s game now has an undisputed aspirant to the throne. Analysts describing the parity among top players point to the eleven different winners of Grand Slam tournaments since Williams won her twenty-third title at the 2017 Australian Open. As one would expect given such a long list, only two players have won multiple titles in that time, and Simona Halep meets that standard with the bare minimum of two, making Osaka’s four that much more impressive.

As she did against Muguruza, and then against Williams, Osaka beat Brady on Saturday with a clear game plan and an iron will that she imposed at a crucial point of the match. Her strategy, even in the early going when both players were showing some nerves, was to focus on Brady’s backhand. It’s the weak link in the game of the 25-year-old rising American star, who went to college because she was unsure her game was good enough to forge a pro career. Those doubts have been dispelled by Brady’s rapid ascent up the rankings. Despite Osaka’s focus on her weakness, Brady held her own for much of the first set Saturday, at least until Osaka decided to seize control.

That moment came at 4-all, when Brady used a deft lob to win a point and draw cheers from the crowd, limited by the pandemic but still greater than either player had seen in months, thanks to Australia’s rigorous campaign against the virus. The shot left Osaka facing a break point. Had she yielded Brady would have served for the first set.

Osaka did not yield. She erased Brady’s advantage with a scorching forehand that was unreturnable and proceeded to hold serve for a 5-4 lead. She then broke Brady to take the first set, and won the first four games of the second, a six-game streak that turned a surprisingly even match into the rout that most observers were expecting. A few minutes later, when a Brady return sailed long to end it, Osaka held her racket over her head and broke into a wide, and well-deserved, smile.

The numbers from Melbourne reveal Osaka’s dominance. She led the women’s bracket with 50 aces, a whopping 15 more than anyone else. She matched that power with precision, ranking second in first serve percentage. After her semifinal win she explained her determination by saying that fans don’t remember runners-up. And while winning four of the last nine majors Osaka has found her voice off the court, becoming a forceful champion for social justice.

At some point, in some Grand Slam event, her remarkable latter-round streak will end. The very word “streak” implies as much. But when it does, Naomi Osaka will just start a new one. After claiming the Australian Open title, she said she hoped to play “long enough to play a girl that said I was once her favorite player or something…. that’s how the sport moves forward.” She could of course have been describing her first match against Serena Williams. That is indeed how any sport moves forward. With its new queen-in-waiting, women’s tennis is advancing just fine.


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