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By Richard Pagliaro | Friday, February 19, 2021

 
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No. 3-seeded Naomi Osaka plays for her fourth Grand Slam title when she takes on first-time major finalist Jennifer Brady in Saturday’s final.

Photo credit: US Open YouTube

Shotmakers with a shared skill for the kill shot square off in the Australian Open final.

No. 3-seeded Naomi Osaka plays for her fourth Grand Slam title when she takes on first-time major finalist Jennifer Brady in Saturday’s final.

Listen: Previewing AO Finals Weekend

The match is a rematch of the 2020 US Open semifinals, which Osaka won 7-6(1), 3-6, 6-3.

Here’s our final preview and prediction.

No. 3 Naomi Osaka (JPN) vs. No. 22 Jennifer Brady (USA)

Head-to-Head: Osaka leads 2-1

2021 Record: Osaka 9-0; Brady 9-2

Best AO Result: Osaka 2019 champion; Brady 2021 final

Career Slam Final Record: Osaka 3-0; Brady 0-0

Career Three-Set Record: Osaka 43-19; Brady 20-19

Naomi Osaka on Jennifer Brady: “I played Brady in the semis of the US Open. It's easily one of my most memorable matches. I think it was just super high quality throughout. For me, it's not really surprising at all to see her in another semis or another finals… Yeah, it's definitely going to be really tough.”

Jennifer Brady on Naomi Osaka: “We grew up playing junior local tournaments in Florida. Both her and her sister I played in the juniors, local, like, Super Series events, just like USTA-sanctioned tournaments.

“I remember playing her in this tournament, it may have been like a lower-level challenger event. I think she was just coming up maybe inside the top 200, and I remember playing her. I was, like, Wow, she hits the ball huge. She's gonna be good. I mean, I was, like, Okay, she's got something special.”



Why Brady Will Win

First Serve, First Strike

The first-time finalist owns two major weapons that can help her control the center of the court: her heavy serve and twisting topspin forehand. Brady has held serve nearly as effectively as Osaka (.855 to .867) throughout this tournament. Brady grew up tossing the football around with her father, Pat Brad, a former QB, has a natural service motion and can use the kick serve wide on both sides to set up her first-strike forehand. The American’s first-serve percentage will be critical to her success as Osaka can get streaky on return.

Unsettling Variety

Brady mixed her twisting topspin forehand with her low slice backhand to keep the ball out of Osaka’s strike zone in winning the second set of their US Open semifinal. Most of the opponents Osaka has defeated in Melbourne—Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Caroline Garcia, Garbine Muguruza and Serena Williams—are power-based flat-ball hitters. Brady can shift the spins and speeds on her serve and shots and will use her variation to unsettle the flatter-hitting Osaka.

Control Clarity

The former UCLA All American carries clarity from her US Open semifinal loss into this final. Brady knows she must serve with ambition, play with fast feet and step around her backhand to drive her forehand with menacing intent. Osaka’s power can be disarming, but Brady knows what to expect after experiencing Osaka’s explosiveness beneath the closed roof of Arthur Ashe Stadium. “She just hits such a big ball, it comes so fast. I think I didn't hit as many forehands as I would have liked to today from the middle of the court,” Brady said then. If Brady can use her forehand to dictate the direction of rallies, she can pull off the upset.

Why Osaka Will Win

Final Force

The bigger the match the better and bolder Osaka plays. The US Open champion is undefeated in three Grand Slam finals and in fact has never lost a major match from the quarterfinals on. Osaka has defeated three future Hall of Famers in her prior major finals—Serena, Petra Kvitova and Victoria Azarenka—knows the danger Brady poses and will not underestimate the American. Osaka undertands how to peak on major platforms and has played some of her most dynamic tennis in Grand Slam finals.

"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," Osaka told the media in Melbourne. "I think I fight the hardest in the finals. I think that's where you sort of set yourself apart. It's the other person won as many matches as you did. It's something that I think, I don't know, it's like the biggest fight."

Streak & Stress Master

Riding a 20-match winning streak into the final, Osaka has not lost a match in more than a year. An assertive Osaka fought off two match points toppling two-time major champion Garbine Muguruza 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 in the fourth round. That win is empowering because Osaka denied match points with dynamic shotmaking—an ace and a snapping forehand into the corner—and because passing match-point stress tests can be empowering down under. Monica Seles, Serena Williams, Kim Clijsters, Li Na, Angelique Kerber and Caroline Wozniacki have all won the AO after saving a match point. Osaka can swing more freely knowing she could have been out of the tournament already.

Staying Power

One of Osaka’s most underrated weapons is her problem-solving skill. Osaka owns an outstanding 43-19 record in three-setters and is riding a streak of 13 consecutive three-set wins in Grand Slams. She hasn’t dropped a three-setter in a major since the 2017 US Open. If this match gets tight and goes the distance, Osaka has the experience and closing power to finish in critical stages.



Prediction

Two pure ball-strikers and bold shotmakers collaborated in a pulsating US Open semifinal.

The pair combined for 70 winners in a two hour, eight-minute skirmish that featured just two breaks of serve. The match popped with adrenalized rallies giving us a glimpse of a possible future rivalry—and now they meet again.

"I felt like we were both serving pretty well. It really was just about making first serves, first ball after that," Brady said in New York. "It was who was the more aggressive player on every single point. I think it rewarded the more aggressive player.

"Maybe she was the more aggressive player today. She played, you know, cleaner at times. I think it was a pretty high-quality match from both of us."

Unquestionably, Brady is a dangerous player who has the weapons to hold serve and pressure Osaka. Pressure is the unknown variable: How will Brady respond to the jitters of her first Grand Slam final?

Osaka is the more experienced and explosive player. She’s a more comfortable playing closer to the baseline, she’s a bit sharper playing the ball on the rise and look for her to drive the ball down the line off both wings—a tactic Jessica Pegula used against Brady in the quarterfinals—and attack the American’s weaker backhand wing.

The faster hard court should benefit Osaka’s flatter drives. The third-seeded Osaka is bidding to become the first woman since Monica Seles in the 1990s to win her first four major finals.

If Osaka can cope with the pressure of being a strong favorite, I see her prevailing in what could be a highly-entertaining final.

The Pick: Naomi Osaka defeats Jennifer Brady in 2 sets

 

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