Novak Djokovic stops the next generation again
Despite a painful torn abdominal muscle suffered during a third-round match, the world No. 1 backed up his confident words in Melbourne. Young guns, veteran standouts and a shock semifinalist all fell prey to the best of the Big Three.
Novak Djokovic’s ninth Australian Open triumph put him within two of the all-time record of 20 Grand Slam singles titles held jointly by Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.
Novak Djokovic often says how much he admires legends Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal and how much they inspire him to smash their record of 20 major titles. Djokovic has quite another message for young Next Gen contenders trying to dethrone him.
Before his ninth Australian Open final, the outspoken Serb warned, “There has been a lot of talk about the new generation and taking over the three of us, but realistically that isn’t happening still. We can talk about it all day if you want. But with all my respect about the other guys, they still have a lot of work to do.”
Despite a painful torn abdominal muscle suffered during a third-round match, Djokovic backed up his confident words in Melbourne. Young guns, veteran standouts and a shock semifinalist all fell prey to the best of the Big Three.
Against Djokovic, red-hot Daniil Medvedev brought a 20-match winning streak, including 12 over top-10 foes, in quest of his first Grand Slam title. The towering Russian had also whipped the Serb in three of their last four matches.
But just an hour and 53 minutes after Djokovic belted an ace on the first point, he conjured a leaping skyhook overhead to finish off the outclassed Medvedev 7-5, 6-2, 6-2. So much for the latest Next Gen contender. Djokovic’s 18th major title gave the Big Three an astounding 57 of the last 69 majors.
Medvedev thinks the trio are superhuman. “To win nine Australian Opens, I need to win every year until I’m 34,” he said. “I mean, I believe in myself, but I don’t think I’m able to do it. Same with Rafa. I mean, 13 Roland Garros... We’re talking about some cyborgs of tennis in a good way. They’re just unbelievable.”
Djokovic looked mortal rather than bionic, though, when he lunged and fell while comfortably leading Taylor Fritz 7-6, 6-4, 2-1. During a medical timeout, he took the maximum dose of an anti-inflammatory medicine to relieve the “huge pain” in his abdomen. The injury, which hampered Djokovic’s movement and serve, enabled the 22-year-old American to grab the next two sets.
The resilient Serb seemed revitalised in the deciding set. Leading 5-2 on Fritz’s serve, Djokovic ripped a forehand winner to stave off a game point and forced two Fritz errors to prevail 7-6, 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 6-2. Then he screamed in joy and relief. Afterwards, Djokovic said, “I don’t know how I won this match.” But ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert did, saying, “This is a champion refusing to lose.”
The other, much-tougher half of the draw featured No. 2-seeded Nadal, going for a record-breaking 21st major title, and rising stars No. 4 Medvedev, No. 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas, No. 7 Andrey Rublev and No. 9 Matteo Berrettini. To win their first Grand Slam crown, one of these contenders would likely have to take down Nadal and then probably Djokovic – both daunting challenges.
Daniil Medvedev praised Djokovic for helping him when he was an aspiring teenager and the Serb was No. 1. “Because I was shy, I didn’t speak. He was asking the questions, talking to me like a friend. I was really surprised. It never changed since I was 600 in the world or four in the world. You’re a great sport, great person.”
Despite an ailing back, Nadal romped to the quarterfinals without dropping a set. Most impressive was Rafa’s 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 victory over No. 16 Fabio Fognini, the talented Italian who had beaten Nadal four times previously.
Meanwhile, Tsitsipas survived a 6-7, 6-4, 6-1, 6-7, 6-4 second-round battle against resurgent Australian Thanasi Kokkinakis, whose career had been derailed by injuries. Tsitsipas caught a break when Berrettini withdrew from their fourth-round match due to an abdominal strain he suffered during his 7-6, 7-6, 7-6 win over No. 19 Karen Khachanov. The rash of injuries may have resulted from a lack of physical training during the quarantine.
In an intriguing quarterfinal filled with sharp contrasts, Nadal faced Tsitsipas. It pitted the lefty against the righty. The bruising baseliner against the athletic net-rusher. The two-handed backhand against the one-hander. And above all, the Legend against the Next Genner. Nadal’s only title here came way back in 2009. Tsitsipas exploded on the pro scene at the 2019 Aussie Open with a four-set upset over Federer.
After Nadal comfortably took the first two sets 6-3, 6-2, “The Greek Freak” rebounded to force a tiebreaker. Then, in the shocker of all shockers, Nadal, who possesses one of the best overheads in tennis history, blew two routine smashes — and also made two unforced ground-stroke errors. The unbelievable collapse gave Tsitsipas the tiebreaker 7-4. It also gave the underdog hope.
Seizing the opportunity, the 22-year-old Tsitsipas pounded away at Nadal’s backhand until it finally broke down. His younger legs eventually wore Nadal down to produce a stunning 3-6, 2-6, 7-6, 6-4, 7-5 triumph. “He out-physicalled Rafa,” said all-time great Martina Navratilova. “And I don’t think I’ve ever seen that. This is a breakthrough win, a career-defining moment for Tsitsipas.” The comeback was all the more astonishing because the fiercely competitive Nadal had boasted a 235-1 record after holding a two-set lead at a major.
Afterwards, the ecstatic Tsitsipas told the spectators, “I started very nervous, I won’t lie, but I don’t know what happened after the third set. I just flied like a little bird, everything was working for me. The emotions at the end are indescribable.”
If even the Great Ones can succumb to pressure, imagine what it can do to someone with a fragile psyche. Nick Kyrgios, known more for wasting his vast talent with showboating and provoking Djokovic and Nadal with obnoxious tweets, had a wonderful chance for a big, perhaps even career-changing, win over third seed Dominic Thiem, the US Open champion.
With the boisterous home crowd yelling after every point he won, Kyrgios led 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 4-4, 40-30 — just one point away from holding serve for 5-4, which would put him only one game away from victory.
Despite an ailing back, Rafael Nadal romped to the quarterfinals without dropping a set.
Just when he needed to play smart percentage tennis, Kyrgios tried a trick shot — a between-the-legs half-volley — and missed badly. “For god’s sake, Nick, don’t do that!” reacted John McEnroe, the ESPN analyst. “He can’t help it, John,” replied John’s brother and commentator partner Patrick.
Kyrgios then lost the next two points and the game. On the changeover, the combustible Aussie whacked a ball out of the John Cain Arena. For that, he received his second code violation (a profanity caused his first) and a loss of point, putting him 0-15 down to start the next game. “That wouldn’t be the first time Nick self-destructed, that’s for sure,” said John McEnroe. The determined Thiem unsurprisingly recovered for a 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 victory.
Not until Kyrgios cares more about winning than entertaining and trains like a champion will he ever have a chance of becoming one.
Someone most tennis fans never heard of before the fortnight exemplified both traits. During the ATP Cup won by Russia in January, Medvedev called him “their secret weapon.”
The secret was out of the bag at the Australian Open where Aslan Karatsev, a qualifier ranked No. 114, zoomed all the way to the semifinals. After nine failed tries to make the main draw at a major, he made history as the first man in the Open Era to reach the semifinals in his Grand Slam debut.
Born in Vladikavkaz, Russia, the 27-year-old Karatsev has never wavered during his long, hard, winding road toward the top. His family emigrated to Israel when was three and he practised there until age 12, when he returned to Taganrog, Russia, with his father. Karatsev trained there until he was 18, when he moved to Moscow, the hotbed of Russian tennis. His next career destinations were Halle, Germany, and Barcelona, Spain, and for the past three years, Minsk, Belarus. There Karatsev hooked up with his old friend Yahor Yatsyk, a 28-year-old Belarusian coach, and his hard-hitting game finally started to click.
The rugged 6’1”, 187-pound Karatsev, with his Popeye-like muscular calves, rampaged through the draw. He trounced No. 7 Diego Schwartzman, a diminutive clay-court standout, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3; overcame No. 20 Felix Auger-Aliassime 3-6, 1-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4; and in the quarterfinals, he stopped No. 18 Grigor Dmitrov, who was hampered by a painful back spasm, 2-6, 6-4, 6-1, 6-2. In his quarterfinal press conference, Karatsev was amusingly asked, “Who are you, and where do you come from?”
To secure his semifinal berth, Djokovic had to beat two more rocket servers. For the 12th straight time, he defused Milos Raonic, 7-6, 4-6, 6-1, 6-4. Alexander Zverev, the 2020 US Open runner-up, posed a greater threat because of his improved versatility. Djokovic led the German two sets to one when they arrived at a tiebreaker. Each player won their serving points up to 6-all. Then Zverev rushed the net and Djokovic cleverly countered with a low passing shot that the lunging, 6’6” Zverev volleyed deep. No one plays big points better than Djokovic, and he aced the German for a 6-7, 6-2, 6-4, 7-6 victory.
Both semifinals were fast and decisive. Medvedev, who had ended the eight-match unbeaten streak of good friend Andrey Rublev 7-5, 6-3, 6-2 in the previous round, scored a surprisingly easy 6-4, 6-2, 7-5 win over Tsitsipas. The Greek looked tired after his gruelling match against Nadal, and the Russian, sensing that, punished him with long, energy-sapping rallies. Not even the loud cheers from the partisan Greek-Australians could pump him up.
Stefanos Tsitsipas (right) pounded away at Rafael Nadal’s backhand until it finally broke down. His younger legs eventually wore Nadal down to produce a stunning 3-6, 2-6, 7-6, 6-4, 7-5 triumph in the quarterfinals.
Afterwards, Tsitsipas heaped praise on Medvedev. “Let me tell you that he’s a player who has unlocked pretty much everything in the game. It’s like he’s reading the game really well. He has this amazing serve which I would describe close to John Isner’s serve. And then he has amazing baseline [shots] which makes it extremely difficult... He tricks you. You know, he plays the game really smart.”
As expected, Djokovic had too much game, athleticism and experience for Karatsev and polished him off 6-3, 6-4, 6-2. “The difference [between Djokovic and other opponents] is really big,” said Karatsev. “He doesn’t give you free points. On my service game, there’s always rallies and rallies. He served well during all of the match, so you’re under pressure.”
After nine matches, Karatsev’s Cinderella story finally ended. But he showed the power of persistence during a journey from the foothills of the Caucasus mountains to Melbourne. The one-time tennis nonentity became a somebody, a world-class player with a very respectable No. 42 ranking.
Before the final, several pundits, including Patrick McEnroe, picked Medvedev. They failed to take into account two critical stats: Djokovic’s superb 33-10 career five-set record, compared to Medvedev’s abysmal 1-6 record. And Djokovic’s 69 percent career-tiebreakers-won record against top 10 players vs 51 percent for Medvedev.
But the intangibles mattered almost as much as the raw numbers. Djokovic called Melbourne “his second home,” and ambled confidently onto Rod Laver Arena to loud applause. In only his second major final, Medvedev looked tense as he received a mixed reception from the half-full crowd.
Aside from the close first set, the final was more master class than competition. After breaking serve in the second game, Djokovic played his worst game of the match, making four unforced errors, the last on a bounce overhead into the net, to cut his lead to 3-2. As Patrick McEnroe later said, “As great as he is, it’s amazing how poor his overhead is.”
The Serb, whose first serve averaged 120 mph during the final, held serve easily to lead 6-5. A forehand winner and a beautiful backhand passing shot highlighted his service break to grab the first set, 7-5. When Djokovic broke back to even the second set at 1-all, his partisans chanted “Olé, olé, olé,” a version of his nickname, “Nolé.”
From that point on, Djokovic dominated every phase of the game. Medvedev’s chess-like tactical brilliance, touted in previous matches, was trumped by Djokovic’s technical superiority. Former US Open champion Andy Roddick’s absurd claim that “technique is overrated” was powerfully refuted.
The rugged 6’1”, 187-pound Aslan Karatsev, with his Popeye-like muscular calves, rampaged through the draw. He trounced No. 7 Diego Schwartzman, overcame No. 20 Felix Auger-Aliassime, and stopped No. 18 Grigor Dmitrov. But Djokovic had too much game, athleticism and experience for Karatsev and polished him off 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 in the semifinals.
Djokovic’s textbook ground strokes were simply sounder, stronger, deeper and more consistent than Medvedev’s. Add in Djoker’s world-best serve return and his improved serve, and Medvedev faced both an irresistible force and an immovable object. His flawless volley produced the most dazzling stat: he won 16 of 18 points (89 percent) at the net. That all-court versatility kept Medvedev in untenable positions and on the run, and often made him hit off balance and on his back foot.
In a Eurosport interview before the final, Djokovic said, “I’m not going to stand here and hand it over to them [the Next Genners]. I’m going to make them work their ass off for it.” That’s exactly what he did against the challenger from Russia. “When Novak says he’s not gonna hand anything to somebody, I believe him,” said the thoroughly convinced Medvedev.
When Djokovic won a long rally to hold serve for 5-2 in the third set, he pointed to his head. Did it mean that he, known for studying videos of his opponents, had outwitted an opponent known for his cleverness? Or did it refer to his mental toughness by prevailing in what he called a “roller-coaster” tournament? Perhaps both.
Either way, Djokovic’s record-extending ninth Australian title had to be his most satisfying, a kind of redemption after his ignominious default at the US Open and his demolition by Nadal in the French final last fall.
Although Djokovic can’t match Federer and Nadal in fan popularity, other players often remark about his kindness. During the trophy ceremony, Medvedev praised him for helping him when he was an aspiring teenager and Djokovic was No. 1. “Because I was shy, I didn’t speak,” Medevedev recalled. “He was asking the questions, talking to me like a friend. I was really surprised. It never changed since I was 600 in the world or four in the world. You’re a great sport, great person. So congratulations.”
Queen Naomi reigns down under
As trophy ceremony speeches go for tennis woman of the world Naomi Osaka, this wasn’t the most memorable, though it had the funniest moment. Before Osaka paid a gracious tribute to runner-up Jennifer Brady, she asked, “Do you like to be called Jenny or Jennifer?” Brady replied, “Jenny.” Then Osaka said, “Firstly, I want to congratulate Jennifer.”
The gaffe was one of the few missteps Queen Naomi made during the Australian Open. Navigating a brutal draw, Osaka captured her second Aussie title and her fourth Grand Slam title in her first four major finals. Only Roger Federer with seven straight and Monica Seles with six straight have pulled off such Grand Slam domination so early in their superstar careers.
Osaka’s 21st consecutive match victory also dispelled any lingering notion of parity in the post-Serena Williams era. Before the fortnight Down Under, nine of the last 14 majors were won by first-timers. Osaka made sure that wouldn’t happen again when she convincingly stopped debutante finalist Brady 6-4, 6-3. As former champion Justine Henin told Eurosport: “Women’s tennis has a new boss. Naomi Osaka has this capacity, she has taken another dimension.”
Naomi Osaka’s 21st consecutive match victory dispelled any lingering notion of parity in the post-Serena Williams era. As former champion Justine Henin told Eurosport: “Women’s tennis has a new boss. Naomi Osaka has this capacity, she has taken another dimension.”
And for the historical record, the 23-year-old Japanese thwarted 39-year-old Serena’s fading bid to equal Margaret Court’s hallowed mark of 24 Grand Slam titles with a 6-3, 6-4 semifinal triumph.
Even the Great Ones sometimes have to escape from the brink of defeat to capture a Grand Slam title. In the fourth round, Osaka faced a challenger who matched her prodigious ground-stroke power. Osaka had never played two-time major champion Garbiñe Muguruza, and afterwards admitted, “I feel like I was a bit intimidated.”
The 26-year-old Spaniard certainly wasn’t intimidated as she raced to a 6-4, 1-0 lead, breaking Osaka with a perfect topspin lob winner. Osaka, who has captured all her majors on hard courts, quickly regrouped by hitting timely winners and reducing unforced errors to seize the second set 6-4.
In the deciding set, 2020 Australian finalist Muguruza belted a backhand winner to surge ahead 5-3. When Osaka, the pre-tournament co-favourite at 9-2 with Ashleigh Barty, fell behind 15-40, double match point, on her serve, she looked finished. But, as champions so often do, she exploded with a barrage of lethal shots. Her 10th ace and a potent forehand erased both match points. Then, a forehand winner and another ace narrowed Muguruza’s lead to 5-4. “Osaka is eerily calm on the big points,” noted ESPN analyst Chris Evert, a former champion nicknamed “Ice Princess” for her own coolness under pressure.
With the 6’ Spaniard serving for the match, Osaka unleashed a backhand winner and a forehand winner to break her serve for 5-all. Riding the momentum out of troubled waters, Osaka took eight of the last 10 points for a 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 victory.
“She’s playing great. Big shots, big serve. That gives her a lot of free points,” Muguruza said about her conqueror during the highest calibre and most entertaining match of the tournament.
Osaka, who was born in Osaka, Japan, had three more fish to fry. Next on her menu was the inimitable Su-wei Hsieh. The unorthodox 35-year-old from Chinese Taipei had confounded rusty 2019 US Open winner Bianca Andreescu and 2019 French Open finalist Marketa Vondrousova with diabolical slicing and dicing to become the oldest first-time quarterfinalist in the Open Era.
Perhaps because Osaka had lost once to Hsieh, and all but one of their five matches had gone three sets, Osaka relished the challenge that Hsieh’s unpredictable game posed. “If it was a video game, I would want to select her character just to play as her, because my mind can’t fathom the choices she makes when she’s on the court,” Osaka said. “It’s not fun to play against, but it’s really fun to watch.”
This time, though, Osaka feasted on the rail-thin, 5’7” Hsieh’s lightweight shots, pounding seven aces among her 24 winners, to prevail 6-2, 6-2 in 68 minutes.
Serving for a place in the final, Jennifer Brady escaped three break points, each time fist-pumping, against Karolina Muchova.
Motivated and dangerous
Osaka would need brains as much as brawn in her next match against heavyweight Williams. Although Serena, the consensus GOAT, hadn’t won a major since the 2017 Australian Open when she was eight weeks pregnant, she had reached four major finals and remained highly motivated and dangerous. She whipped No. 7 Aryna Sabalenka 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 and two-time major champ Simona Halep 6-3, 6-3, and so, Serena brought plenty of momentum and confidence to the match against Osaka.
Despite never having reached a major quarterfinal, the hard-hitting but streaky Sabalenka, who had won three tournaments in the previous three months, was the oddsmakers’ favourite against Williams. Like Osaka and many other New Gen women, she had idolised Serena as a girl. As more of Sabalenka’s heavy artillery landed safely to give her a 4-1 second-set lead, Evert commented, “Very rarely do we see Serena on the defence like we have this match.”
Sabalenka, nicknamed the “Warrior Princess” for her bold shots and fierce competitiveness, rallied for a service break and a hold to square the third set at 4-all. On the next point, she screamed in delight after smacking a forehand winner. She couldn’t sustain that level, though, and Serena grabbed seven of the last nine points.
“Serena’s movement is the best it’s been in a long, long time,” said ESPN analyst Darren Cahill. “If she can stay in more points and get more balls back, stay alive, then she’s got the power to turn those points around.”
Indeed, with speed afoot after her Achilles injury healed, her awesome service power intact at 39, and clutch play on the big points, Serena looked like the Serena of yesteryear. On the faster-than-ever GreenSet acrylic-topped surface, she had more than a puncher’s chance against Osaka.
With fans back in the stands after the end of a five-day, mid-tournament hard lockdown, would sentimental favourite Serena draw energy or get nervous from spectators? “Serena has said she has less anxiety when there isn’t a crowd,” ESPN analyst Pam Shriver said. “But she’ll have fans today.”
Would her ageing body and suspect nerves hold up, given her tough draw? And what about her ground-stroke technique that occasionally has broken down in recent years? Shriver summed up the intergenerational rivalry best when she said, “Osaka does everything Serena does, but a little bit better.”
As Serena tried for the 11th time to capture a historic 24th Grand Slam title, a camera crew followed her every move around the Australian Open. Ever the fashionista, Williams played to the camera and to the crowd by wearing an attention-grabbing, one-legged black, red, and pink cat suit inspired by track great Florence Griffith Joyner and produced by Nike.
Serena boasted a perfect 8-0 record in Australian Open semifinals going into this blockbuster match against her successor to the throne, while Osaka was a perfect 3-0 in Grand Slam semifinals.
The valiant Karolina Muchova ought off four match points in the semifinals, the last coming on a swinging forehand volley winner. But Jennifer Brady held her nerve to win the last two points and capture the 16-point game.
Nerves betrayed Osaka, as she gave away the opening game with a double fault and three unforced ground-stroke errors. Serena then easily held serve for a 2-0 lead.
Rarely has the turning point in a match come this early. But with Osaka down 2-0 and break point down at 30-40, Serena surprisingly buckled under the pressure, making an unforced forehand error and missing a forehand serve return. That slight opening was all the opportunistic Osaka needed. She blasted an ace to hold serve and then, loosening up, broke Serena’s serve with brilliant angles to even the score at 2-2.
What if Serena had capitalised on her early chance for a double break? In any event, two games later Osaka notched another service break with a backhand down-the-line winner and a forehand winner to pull ahead 4-2. That was all she needed to take the opening set 6-3, despite getting a shockingly low 36 percent of first serves in. Another shocking stat: Serena hit only one ground-stroke winner. No wonder the normally vocal American didn’t scream until she held serve for 5-3.
A superb frontrunner with a 43-1 record in majors after winning the first set, Osaka started the second set on fire. A backhand crosscourt winner broke Serena for 1-0. Then two aces, the first 120 mph, made it 2-0. “Serena’s facing a player who seems to beat her at her own game,” said Evert.
When Serena roared, as only she can, after a forehand winner in the fifth game, many of the 7,500 spectators roared in support. (Only half of the Rod Laver Arena capacity was allowed due to Covid-19 protocols.) Concerned that she might lose focus playing her hero, Osaka avoided eye contact with Williams and kept her distance as they walked to their seats during changeovers.
It took three double faults by the suddenly nervous Osaka for Serena to break back for 4-all. Just as suddenly, the 5’11” Osaka regained her poise. Reeling off the last eight points, highlighted by four winners, she closed it out for a solid, if uneven, 6-3, 6-4 victory.
As Serena walked off the court, the seven-time Australian Open winner waved to the crowd. Was it a goodbye wave, signally her final appearance Down Under? Pressed on the point during her post-match media conference, a tearful Serena said, “I don’t know, if I’ll ever say farewell, I wouldn’t tell anyone. I don’t know. I’m done.” Then the proud champion abruptly exited.
Overshadowed by the former queen and the new queen, Jennifer Brady won the most positive player attitude award as the state of Victoria imposed strict rules to prevent the spread of the pandemic. Because she travelled to Melbourne on a flight with cases of Covid-19, she was one of the 51 singles entrants, including 12 seeded players, forced into complete isolation for two weeks. All the other players were allowed to practise outdoors for a maximum of two hours a day.
“A lot of people were complaining and I told myself I wasn’t going to complain,” Brady said. “There’s way worse things going on in the world than me being stuck in a hotel room for 14 days. Tennis Australia provided us with a bike, and for the last few days I had a treadmill and weights. I was able to train and work out. It was a small hotel room, but I was able to do everything that I needed to do to stay as fit as possible. If I started feeling bad for myself or started complaining, I think it would have made the 14 days a lot harder than it was.”
Handling the hard lockdown better than anyone, Brady would prove her semifinal showing at the 2020 US Open was no fluke. There her three-set slugfest with Osaka was the consensus top match of the pandemic-shortened season. In Melbourne, Brady easily defeated every opponent before dropping a set in the quarterfinals to good friend Jessica Pegula, who had earlier upset No. 5 Elina Svitolina.
As Serena Williams walked off the court after her semifinal loss to Osaka, the seven-time Australian Open winner waved to the crowd. Was it a goodbye wave, signally her final appearance Down Under?
Brady faced much-improved Karolína Muchová in the semifinals. Athletic and versatile, the 25th seed from the Czech Republic demonstrated why all-time great Martina Navratilova tabbed her last year as a future top-tenner. Muchova staged three comebacks to upset No. 6 Karolína Plíšková 7-5, 7-5, No. 18 Elise Mertens 7-6, 7-5, and No. 1 and home country favourite Barty 1-6, 6-3, 6-2.
In an exciting, fluctuating match where neither Brady nor Muchová performed their best at the same time, they split sets. The calibre of play picked up in the intense deciding set as both battled ferociously to reach their first major final. Their dazzling shotmaking reached a crescendo with Brady serving at 5-4 to close out the match.
Brady escaped three break points, each time fist-pumping. Just as remarkably, the valiant Muchová fought off four match points, the last coming on a swinging forehand volley winner. But Brady held her nerve to win the last two points and capture the 16-point game, the toughest in her career, for an enthralling 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 victory. “I was just so nervous,” Brady said afterwards. “Couldn’t feel my legs. My arms were shaking. I was just hoping she would miss.”
No stone unturned
Brady would face the toughest match of her career as a decided underdog in the final. Osaka and her team, led by coach Wim Fissette, had left no stone unturned. Reflecting on Victoria Azarenka’s superb return of serve in their close US Open final last September, Osaka, said, “I just wanted to have a return like her, to be honest, because I felt like if I have a good serve and a good return, then it will kind of increase my chances a lot.”
Those two first-strike weapons certainly proved decisive in her previous six matches. Osaka lost her serve only eight times. Equally telling, her serve returns against Williams helped her convert 4 of 4 break points and win an excellent 44 percent of her receiving points, double that of Williams.
Even more ominous for Brady was this statement, almost a credo, by Osaka. “For me, I have this mentality that people don’t remember the runners-up,” she said before the final. “You might, but the winner’s name is the one that’s engraved [on the trophy]. I think I fight the hardest in the finals. I think that’s where you sort of set yourself apart.”
Many experts predict Osaka will set herself apart and wind up with double-digit major titles before she hangs up her sneakers. “She wants to break records,” said Evert. “She’s been very vocal about that.”
This final lacked the scintillating shots and sustained suspense of their US Open semifinal, but still produced some excitement. Both players boast potent first serves — Osaka averaged 111 mph and Brady 109 — and fearsome forehands with somewhat inconsistent backhands. So it became a battle of wits and skill to attack the other player’s weakness. Incredibly, Osaka keeps a mental count of her winners in her head during a match, like a card counter in Las Vegas. Going into the final, she amassed 37 winners and 48 unforced errors on her vulnerable backhand.
With lots of Japanese flags fluttering in the cool, breezy evening, the slightly pro-Osaka crowd witnessed both players trading service breaks in the middle of the first set. Osaka staved off a break point to lead 5-4, and a tiebreaker looked likely when Brady led 40-15 in the next game. But the less-experienced American played poorly to lose the next four points and the set 6-4.
Yelling “Come on!” after every ace, Osaka raced to a 4-love lead in the second set. With fans cheering her on to make it a closer match, Brady obliged by breaking serve to tighten the match a bit at 4-1.
But, as ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert said, “She has an assassin’s mentality.” Sure enough, serving for the championship at 5-3, Osaka finished off her victim in four straight points.
In a low-key celebration, the winner smiled, jumped a bit for joy, and twirled her racket over her head. As Osaka walked to the net, she performed a mini Japanese-style bow to show respect and then shared a hug with Brady.
“You run out of superlatives to describe Osaka’s play in finals,” said Tennis Channel analyst Lindsay Davenport. “Naomi needs a rival,” rightly asserted Shriver. “It’s a new era,” said Evert. “The younger generation rocks now.”
The only question about Osaka centres around whether she’s ready to win a Grand Slam title on grass and clay, the more specialised surfaces. She’s never advanced past the third round at either Wimbledon or Roland Garros. It won’t surprise anyone if Queen Naomi wins another major this year, and the more suitable venue for her dynamic and evolving game would seemingly be the fast grass at Wimbledon, the citadel of tennis.
Wherever she triumphs and however successful her career may become, Osaka aspires for a different legacy. “I feel like the biggest thing that I want to achieve is – this is going to sound really odd – but hopefully I play long enough to play a girl that said that I was once her favourite player or something,” she said. “For me, I think that’s the coolest thing that could ever happen to me. I think I have those feelings of watching my favourite players. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to play Li Na, but, yeah, I just think that that’s how the sport moves forward.”