Osaka eyeing 4th slam title
Whether or not Naomi Osaka claims the Australian Open championship — and make no mistake, she will be expected to win — this much seems certain: Tennis has a new dominant force.
Sure, it’s clearly possible that Osaka could be beaten by the 22nd-seeded American Jennifer Brady in the title match at Melbourne Park on Saturday.
Brady is, after all, emerging as a force on hard courts, too, thanks to a big serve and big forehand. She pushed Osaka to three sets before losing to her in the U.S. Open semifinals last September, then shrugged off a two-week hard quarantine in Australia to reach her first Grand Slam final.
It is the No. 3-seeded Osaka, though, who overpowered and overwhelmed Serena Williams in the semifinals Thursday.
Who is riding a 20-match winning streak dating to last season.
Who already has spent time at No. 1 in the rankings.
Who is seeking her second Australian Open title and fourth Slam trophy — and she is still only 23.
Like 23-time major champion Williams, there is a determination that Osaka manages to display when the finish line is near on their sport’s most important stages: She has run her record to a combined 11-0 in Grand Slam quarterfinals, semifinals and finals.
Osaka often speaks about wanting more consistency, whether that’s at lower-level WTA tournaments or at every Grand Slam event.
She does occasionally stumble early at the majors, such as a third-round exit a year ago as the defending champion in Australia or a first-round loss at Wimbledon in 2019.
But once she gets close to the end, she seals the deal.
“For me, I have this mentality that people don’t remember the runners-up. You might, but the winner’s name is the one that’s engraved,” explained Osaka, who was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and Haitian father before the family moved to New York when she was 3.
“I think I fight the hardest in the finals,” she continued. “I think that’s where you sort of set yourself apart.”
Williams had been 8-0 in Australian Open semifinals until Osaka put a stop to that by winning 6-3, 6-4, reeling off the last eight points of the match after the second set was even at 4-all.
When they hugged at the net at the end, this is what went through Osaka’s mind: “Always a surreal moment, just to see her in real life, like, close up.”
Osaka has long viewed the 39-year-old Williams as an idol. Their games are quite similar at the most foundational level: speedy serves, dangerous forehands and that steely attitude on court.
Brady got a sense of that during the entertaining matchup in New York last year against Osaka.
“She just puts a lot of pressure on you to serve well, because she’s holding serve in, like, 45 seconds. … She’s coming at you with a lot of power, so it also puts a lot of pressure on you to be aggressive and try to get the first strike.”