Whichever way you may want to look at it—on paper, reputation or current form—three-time Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka can wear the favorite tag with some degree of assurance when she walks on to the Rod Laver Arena on Saturday to play maiden Slam finalist Jennifer Brady. However, women's tennis has lately taken a deeper liking to the heart-warming underdog story.
Four of the last six women's singles Grand Slam champions have been first-time finalists—Iga Swiatek (beating Sofia Kenin) most recently at the 2020 French Open, Kenin herself, beating Garbine Muguruza at the Australian Open last year, Bianca Andreescu (Serena Williams) at the 2019 US Open final and Ashleigh Barty (Marketa Vondrousova) at the French Open the same year.
The first three on this list became champions by beating fancier and more seasoned opponents, something world No 24 Brady has been accustomed to doing since the beginning of 2020.
Getting into the WTA Brisbane International quarter-finals as a qualifier in January, the 25-year-old American defeated former world No 1 Maria Sharapova and current No. 1 Barty to set the tone at the start of the season. Brady carried that to the Dubai Duty-Free Tennis Championships, where, again as a qualifier, she stunned third seed Elina Svitolina, Vondrousova, and two-time Slam champion Muguruza to storm into the semi-finals.
The pandemic applied the brakes on her run, albeit temporarily. In her first tournament upon resumption, Brady won the WTA Lexington title in August (her first at the WTA level), made the semi-finals of the US Open—beating Angelique Kerber, a thrice Slam winner, in the Round of 16—and the last-four stage at the Ostrava Open that saw her break into top-25 of the world rankings.
That semi-final encounter at Flushing Meadows would be fresh in the mind of Brady, and so too for Osaka. It was the last time they battled each other, and it turned out to be quite the war. In an exhibition of powerful serves and groundstrokes, Osaka had to summon all her experience of the big stage to eke out a 7-6(1), 3-6, 6-3 victory. Osaka reckoned it was "probably (in the) top two matches I've played in my life". Brady remembers those words, repeating them after her semi-final win at this Australian Open.
She pushed Osaka hard in New York. She pushed herself hard in Melbourne.
Brady was one of the 72 players in hard quarantine, forced to stay in her room for two weeks prior to the start of the Slam as co-passengers on her chartered flight tested positive for the Covid-19. While most in that group expressed their frustration about the situation and brought it up as a factor for their physical shortcomings while exiting the tournament, Brady did not think of it as a hindrance. Instead, she worked on providing plenty of rest to the body and positivity to the mind.
"At first I was a little bummed, and then I was like, OK, I'm fine," she was quoted as saying in the New York Times. "There are worse things out there in the world than being stuck in a room for 14 days."
There were better things out there for her after it. Brady entered the semi-final of the WTA warm-up event in the week leading up to the Australian Open, in which she enjoyed straight-sets wins in the first four rounds. With Svitolina and Barty upset by Jessica Pegula and Karolina Muchova, respectively, Brady's task was made less challenging in the quarter and semi-finals.
Brady is armed with a hard-hitting baseline game and serve—she sits third on the list of most aces among the women in this tournament at 32. The first? Her final hurdle, Osaka (44).
The third-seeded Japanese will be a big step up for Brady, having faced just two seeded players through the tournament and none higher than the 25th seed Muchova. Osaka possesses the same weapons as Brady, even more, polished and dangerous as she showed in her semi-final thrashing of Serena Williams. The 23-year-old has only thrice made it past the fourth round of a Grand Slam but when she does, she makes sure she goes the full distance.
Osaka doesn't know the feeling of losing a Slam final; Brady doesn't know the feeling of being in a Slam final.