The Washington Post Sunday

Naomi Osaka scores her fourth Grand Slam ti­tle with a vic­tory over Jen­nifer Brady at the Aus­tralian Open.

- BY CHUCK CULPEP­PER chuck.culpep­per@wash­ Supermodels · Celebrities · Osaka · Roger Federer · Maria Sharapova · Garbiñe Muguruza · Germany · Pennsylvania · United States of America · Naomi Ōsaka · Monica Seles · Serena Williams · Venus Williams · Kim Clijsters · Althea Gibson · Petra Kvitová · Victoria Azarenka

With the pol­ish of a ha­bit­ual Grand Slam fi­nal­ist, Naomi Osaka be­came a four-time Grand Slam win­ner Satur­day night in Mel­bourne. Her clear fa­mil­iar­ity with such rare air guided her through the man­age­able clut­ter along the 77-minute path of her lat­est Aus­tralian Open fi­nal. It proved de­ci­sive by 6-4, 6-3 against a first-time Slam fi­nal­ist, the im­pres­sive Jen­nifer Brady. It ce­mented Osaka as the North Star of the women’s ten­nis mo­ment.

It lent even more grand­ness to the vista of her fu­ture and ush­ered her fur­ther into ex­alted com­pany. Sweep­ing her first four Grand Slam fi­nals put her along­side only Mon­ica Se­les and Roger Fed­erer in the Open era, a fac­toid she found “def­i­nitely some­thing crazy to hear.” Hold­ing four or more Grand Slam ti­tles at a prom­ise-packed age of 23 put her along­side Ser­ena Wil­liams, Venus Wil­liams and Kim Cli­jsters among ac­tive play­ers and within one of a batch of re­tired bright lights that in­cludes Althea Gib­son and Maria Shara­pova. Reach­ing 12-0 in Grand Slam quar­ter­fi­nals, semi­fi­nals and fi­nals put her — well, in a quirky, lofty cat­e­gory with only her­self.

“She’s such an in­spi­ra­tion to us all, and what she’s do­ing for the game is amaz­ing,” Brady said af­ter­ward to a crowd of 7,381, a crowd both limited and wel­come be­cause of the pan­demic. “I hope the young girls are watch­ing and in­spired by what she’s do­ing.”

“This is go­ing to sound re­ally odd,” Osaka said later of her ul­ti­mate goal, “but hope­fully I play long enough to play a girl who said that I was once her fa­vorite player. That would be like the coolest thing that could hap­pen to me.” Of course, the cool things that have hap­pened al­ready do not in­clude sup­plant­ing Ser­ena Wil­liams, the queen Osaka out­played in the semi­fi­nals, as the face of the sport. “No,” Osaka said. “Not at all.” Given her big-match daunt­less­ness that saw her wrig­gle out of two match points against Gar­biñe Mugu­ruza in the fourth round, it’s no won­der that as Osaka watched Brady’s fi­nal re­turn of serve sail long to close out things by hold­ing at love, Osaka beamed but did not ex­ult. She had been there be­fore and be­fore and be­fore.

Brady, 25, had not, even as she has bolted to her own hey­day, her rank­ing of No. 24 groan­ing as low in an era when the tab­u­la­tion process has been tweaked to fac­tor in a pan­demic. With her train­ing re­lo­cated to Ger­many and her game re­con­structed by coach Michael Ge­serer and trainer Daniel Pohl to be­come more “re­peat­able,” rather than fluc­tu­at­ing, this Penn­syl­va­nia-born Florid­ian who played two sea­sons for UCLA be­came the first for­mer col­lege player in a Grand Slam fi­nal in 37 years, since Kathy Jordan at the 1983 Aus­tralian Open. When she re­views her first go at such a lit-up stage, she might wince at a se­quence late in the first set, in­clud­ing a set point straight out of an REM nightmare.

“I think I be­long at this level,” she would say af­ter­ward. “I think win­ning a Grand Slam is to­tally achiev­able. It’s within reach.” She had ex­ited the court think­ing it felt “a lit­tle bit nor­mal” whereas be­fore she would have thought it “would feel like it’s just like go­ing to Mars.”

When they had scrapped to 4-4 in their reprise of their taut, three­set, U.S. Open semi­fi­nal Osaka won in Sep­tem­ber, it seemed Brady might ben­e­fit from Osaka’s fresh realm as con­sid­er­able fa­vorite. “There ac­tu­ally was a lot of nerves with that,” Osaka would say. Her pre­vi­ous three Grand Slam fi­nals, af­ter all, had landed her op­po­site 23-time win­ner Ser­ena Wil­liams, two-time Slam win­ner Pe­tra Kvi­tova and two-time Slam win­ner Vic­to­ria Azarenka. Now she had a ris­ing, thriv­ing op­po­nent who had weath­ered with­out com­plaint a two-week hard quar­an­tine upon ar­rival in Jan­uary, a mat­tress propped against the wall to cush­ion prac­tice shots.

Such a tricky sit­u­a­tion called for cagey wis­dom from a sea­soned, trav­eled poly­glot of 23, the daugh­ter of a Ja­panese mother, a Haitian fa­ther and an Amer­i­can up­bring­ing. Said Osaka, “I told my­self be­fore the match, I’m prob­a­bly not go­ing to play well, and I shouldn’t put that pres­sure on my­self to play per­fectly.”

The nerves did howl in a faulty first serve and a messy break early on, serv­ing at 3-1, but Osaka main­tained that ca­pac­ity for what Brady called “high-risk ten­nis when it mat­ters.” As Brady held a break point in the 4-4 game, Osaka sent a tremen­dous fore­hand win­ner to the side­line, then raked up the next two points from eight- and 10-shot ex­changes for 5-4. Then, with Brady serv­ing and lead­ing 40-15, the set look­ing like a pos­si­ble don­ny­brook, Brady shipped a rushed back­hand just long and then dou­ble-faulted wide in the mid­dle for deuce. With Osaka’s power and pace cramp­ing Brady’s time out there, Osaka gained a break point and set point on a weird­ness, a back­hand that went high, twisted in the wind and hit the base­line, help­ing cause a Brady er­ror, a fore­hand shoved long.

On that set point, Brady got a short-ball re­turn and, from her renowned fore­hand wing, slapped it into the net.

“No, I ac­tu­ally for­got about ev­ery sin­gle one of [the er­rors], and then you just came and brought it up,” Brady said, us­ing her ca­pa­ble wit in field­ing a re­porter’s ques­tion in the news con­fer­ence. “But it’s okay.” She said such a blun­der “hap­pens maybe like one in 10 times, hope­fully less. But it took a hit at my con­fi­dence a lit­tle bit just be­cause I lost fo­cus a lit­tle bit.”

The match then hur­ried 4-4 to 6-4, 4-0, af­ter which Osaka never drifted into real trou­ble, es­pe­cially given a serve that has reached the level of fe­ro­cious and con­tin­ues budding past that. She led in aces 6-2 and trailed in un­forced er­rors 31-24, and she moved on to try to mas­ter the two Grand Slam sur­faces that have foiled her: Roland Gar­ros clay and Wim­ble­don grass.

“So the funny thing is, I don’t look at ex­pec­ta­tions as a bur­den any­more,” she said hours later. “I feel like I’m at the point now that it’s some­thing that I’ve worked for, you know. Like, peo­ple wouldn’t ex­pect things of me if I hadn’t done things prior. If that makes sense.” She car­ried on, even­tu­ally say­ing, “Like, if some­one ex­pects me to do some­thing, I would ex­pect to do bet­ter than what they ex­pect.” She paused. “So many ‘ex­pects’ in one . . . sen­tence,” said a woman clearly very good even when every­body ex­pects.

 ?? LOREN EL­LIOTT/REUTERS ?? Naomi Osaka is 12-0 in Grand Slam quar­ter­fi­nals, semi­fi­nals and fi­nals af­ter a 6-4, 6-3 vic­tory over Jen­nifer Brady on Satur­day.
LOREN EL­LIOTT/REUTERS Naomi Osaka is 12-0 in Grand Slam quar­ter­fi­nals, semi­fi­nals and fi­nals af­ter a 6-4, 6-3 vic­tory over Jen­nifer Brady on Satur­day.

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