“To arrive in the final is an incredible achievement… but it’s not history. History is winning,” said Tottenham Hotspur manager Jose Mourinho in 2019 on their Champions League runner-up finish a season prior.
On Friday, thousands of kilometres away, in an entirely different setting and an entirely different sport, Naomi Osaka said, “I have this mentality that people don’t remember the runners-up. I think I fight the hardest in the finals. I think that’s where you sort of set yourself apart.”
Chilling words but they hold true for professional sport. Osaka, unlike the Spurs, has come out on the winning side in big stage finals thus far in her career. She had been to the US Open final twice (2018, 2020) and Australian Open once (2019) and triumphed in all three.
Still thinking about these backhand winners from Naomi Osaka, just when she needed them most.
— Matt Roberts (@MattRobertsTTP) February 18, 2021
Come Saturday, Osaka will put at stake her winning record in Slam finals in the Australian Open final. She will also risk her winning streak which stretched to 20 matches following a straight sets win over Serena Williams. Her last defeat, in February 2020, was a surprise 0-6, 3-6 loss to Spain’s Sara Sorribes Tomo of Spain in the Fed Cup.
Since then, she’s beaten the likes of Elise Mertens, Victoria Azarenka, Anett Kontaveit, Ons Jabeur, Garbine Muguruza, Williams and her opponent on Saturday — Jennifer Brady.
By winning the US Open and now moving to the Australian Open final with a shot at a fourth Grand Slam title, she’s solidified her stature as the best women’s hard court player at the moment. What it also does is sheds light on her dominance on hard courts while struggling on clay and grass. She’s won six titles and all of them are on hard courts. Her best at French Open and Wimbledon is a third round each but that’s a story for a later date.
With her demolition show of Serena and the hug at the net, it appeared to be a passing of the baton. G.O.A.T. was passing the mantle on to someone who deserved it — not just for her tennis. Osaka is at the forefront of the young women coming through and credits her success to a new-found mental maturity.
“I’m most proud of how mentally strong I’ve become. The quarantine process and seeing everything that’s going on in the world, it put a lot into perspective.
“I used to weigh my entire existence on if I won or lost a tennis match. That’s just not how I feel anymore,” she said on her perspective.
The 23-year-old has talked of being nervous before matches in the past, but has evolved. “Naomi was excited before the match,” said her coach Wim Fissette. “She was like when I bring my kids to the toy store, you know? Naomi was excited to go on court with Serena.
“It’s just beautiful to see, because a lot of times you feel the pressure, like you kind of maybe fear to lose. But her mindset is just looking at the positives, like, ‘This is exactly where I want to be. This is what I train for. This is the moment where I want to play my best tennis.’”
She would need more of that when she takes on Brady, who is also making a mark on hard courts on the back of her aggressive style and thundering forehands. They met as juniors seven years ago in Florida but since then it is Osaka who has won both their meetings including the most recent epic in the US Open semi-finals.
Osaka prevailed 7-6, 3-6, 6-3 in a nerve-wracking encounter which the Japanese player considers as “among the top two matches” in her career. For Brady, Sunday’s final is a chance at revenge.
The American came into the Australian Open having served a 14-day hard quarantine — confined to her room for 24 hours after COVID-19 positive results on flights to Melbourne. She’s opted not to use that as an excuse and gone about her business. And she’s been remarkable at it.
She had dropped just 26 games coming into the semi-final against Karolina Muchova and had gone largely untested. That changed against the Czech 25th seed. Muchova came from a set down and really tested Brady — physically and mentally. By the end, Brady said in the on-court interview, “my legs are shaking.”
Former player Chris Evert, who spotted her talent early, said, “She was athletic, hit a hard ball and was very talented with her hands, but she had no focus whatsoever,” Evert said. “She didn’t know how to problem-solve and get herself out of trouble.”
Brady has improved significantly since. She beat Ashleigh Barty last year, won her maiden title in Lexington and then went all the way to the last four in New York. If that wasn’t enough to highlight how much better she had gotten on and off the court, she has done so in Melbourne.
While others have complained of being in hard quarantine and the damage it has done, Brady has stayed focussed.
On Rod Laver Arena, in the final, the nerves would be tested even more. “Listen, I don’t know how I’m going to feel on Saturday. I can say I can enjoy the moment and just try to play tennis and not really think too much about it. But there’s going to be moments, there’s going to be games, there’s going to be points, where I’m going to be thinking about, ‘Wow, this could be my first Grand Slam title,’” said Brady.
“Yeah, I will definitely have those thoughts,” she said. “But it’s more just trying to control the emotions, really.”
In order to do that, the 25-year-old, who only made her WTA debut in 2016 and contemplated quitting the sport at one point, has to get past the best player in the world at the moment.
STAT: Osaka, who has never lost a Slam match after getting past the fourth round, is aiming to become the first woman’s player since Monica Seles to win her first four Grand Slam finals.