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Osaka wins, and an era begins

Suddenly, Osaka has won more titles than all other current players except the Williams sisters and Kim Clijsters, who is semi-unretired. She has established one interim mark for posterity: she has won all four finals she has played to date.

As Serena Williams’ career tails away, and after a long period of flux in which every major seemed to produce a new winner, Osaka has emerged as the standard-bearer, with both a game and a voice to lead the sport, and a heritage to widen its appeal. The vanquished Brady called her “an inspiration”.

She is now in a position to compare wins, a luxury few ever know. “I think this time around a little bit more surreal than last,” she said, “just because I know how much effort I have to put into winning one of these.”

Naomi Osaka proved too good, securing her second Australian Open and fourth grand slam singles title.

Naomi Osaka proved too good, securing her second Australian Open and fourth grand slam singles title.Credit:Getty Images

Osaka’s four titles consist of two apiece at the US and Australian Opens. Her next-level challenge is to win away from hard courts. They are well within range. It was the beaten Brady who noted a kind of homogenisation. The clay of Roland Garros was speeding up and the grass of Wimbledon was slowing down.

For now, though, Osaka was content to lower her sights and express gratitude for the chance to play at all at this time. “I feel like playing a grand slam now is a super privilege, and it’s something I won’t take for granted,” she said on court. “Thank you to everyone for making this tournament possible.”

To the winner the spoils: Naomi Osaka with the trophy.

To the winner the spoils: Naomi Osaka with the trophy.Credit:Eddie Jim

Brady won’t consent in this idea, but having come through hard quarantine – and made no complaint – simply to be in this final was an achievement. As much could be told when she fell flat on her back after her hard-fought semi-final win over Karolina Muchova. It was an end in itself.

More even than Osaka, Brady personified the whole tournament. She was relieved to be playing at all, delighted to get to the end, glad of a crowd to bear witness. Osaka was there to win it.

Osaka would have meant no ill on the podium when she asked publicly whether Brady preferred to be called Jennifer or Jen. But its effect was to ask: do I know you? It affirmed the gap between them. Brady is top 20, but Osaka is now No. 2 and drawing a bead on Ash Barty at No. 1.

Osaka is still growing and filling out as a tennis player. She and Brady had played a torrid semi-final at the US Open, described by both as memorable, won by Osaka 6-3 in the third. That clash made it clear that Brady even more than Williams was one player who might be able to match Osaka blow for heavy blow.

“I told everyone that would listen that you’re going to be a problem, and I was right,” Osaka said on the podium. It was a safe platform for graciousness. But however far Brady had come since then, Osaka had widened the margin.

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In truth, each player was her own problem as well as the other’s.

The first set was best described as error-strewn. The stats tell the uninspiring tale. Both players struggled to land more than two in five of their first serve. Osaka’s eight winners were outweighed by 15 errors, Brady’s 10 winners by 18 errors.

A flukey breeze did not help two players who depend on precision big hitting, but was only a partial explanation. Brady had another quasi-alibi: for the first time in this tournament, she was playing at night, when there is less pace in the court and bounce in the balls. It suited her less.

Brady could have been expected to be nervous and was apprehensive. She knew Osaka would come at her and that she would have to get her retaliation in first. Looking back, it is remarkable to think that Brady had a point to lead the match.

Osaka in the first set played down to the level. Of the consummate player who blew away Williams in a semi-final, there were only glimpses. But those glimpses were good enough for six straight games in the middle of the match, and they won it.

Jennifer Brady stretches for a shot against Naomi Osaka in the final.

Jennifer Brady stretches for a shot against Naomi Osaka in the final.Credit:Eddie Jim

But it was always a contest that struggled to get out of the way of its own billing. In the second set as in the first, errors outnumbered winners on both sides of the net. At 4-0 in the second, only formalities remained. Brady rallied to play her best tennis of the match, but Osaka had its running. She finished the match as she had begun it, with an unplayable service game.

Often enough, a final is an anti-climax. It’s the long run that counts. Osaka’s put her name on the trophy this night, but her win was secured by her victory from two match points down over Garbine Muguruza in the round of 16 and her eclipse of Williams in the semi-finals. With due respect to Barty, Osaka is now the monarch of women’s tennis.

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