Naomi Osaka targets fourth Slam title, with Jennifer Brady in the way
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MELBOURNE -Japan's Naomi Osaka will take her perfect record in Grand Slam deciders into the Australian Open final on Saturday, where she will attempt to make it four out of four at the expense of America's Jennifer Brady.
A second trophy at Melbourne Park would mean the 23-year-old from Japan has won half the majors she's contested since her first Slam title at the US Open final in 2018 - an infamous match forever remembered for Serena Williams's implosion.
Osaka's demolition of Williams in the semi-finals ended the 39-year-old's latest attempt to win a record-equalling 24th major, and reinforced the belief that the Japanese world number three heads a generation that is taking over from the American.
The quirky but increasingly confident Osaka has never lost after reaching the last eight of a Grand Slam, and is riding a 20-match winning streak that dates back a year.
She is now aiming to become the first woman's player since Monica Seles to win her first four Grand Slam finals.
"I have this mentality that people don't remember the runners-up," Osaka explained.
"I think I fight the hardest in the finals. I think that's where you sort of set yourself apart."
Osaka is hot favourite against 22nd seed Brady, who is making her Grand Slam final debut after serving 14 days' hard quarantine before the tournament, unlike other players who were allowed out of their hotel rooms to train.
The pair first clashed as juniors in Florida seven years ago, when Brady won.
Osaka has won both their matches since with their rivalry hitting new heights in the second of those, last year's epic US Open semi-final.
Eventual champion Osaka prevailed 7-6 (7/1), 3-6, 6-3 in a nerve-jangling encounter, dubbed by some as the best match of the truncated 2020 season.
"Was probably (in the) top two matches I've played in my life," Osaka said of the classic at Flushing Meadows.
"I think the matches I remember the most when I'm having a very hard time. I think about that match a lot."
- 'She hits it huge' -
Third seed Osaka believes she has sharpened her game since then, which will be crucial to blunt the strong-serving American.
"I play a little bit different now," said Osaka.
"I think my returns are better. I can't fully base everything on that match, but definitely it's something to reference."
Brady, 25, has not faced a higher-ranked player in her run to the final, helped by the exits of world number one Ashleigh Barty and defending champion Sofia Kenin on her side of the draw.
Having not lost a set until her three-set thriller against Karolina Muchova in the semis, Brady knows she is in for a fight against a player she long believed was destined for stardom.
"We grew up playing junior local tournaments in Florida," she said.
"I remember playing her, I was, like, 'Wow, she hits the ball huge. She's going to be good. She's got something special.'"
Brady, who "didn't really like" tennis as a youngster, but rekindled her love for the sport at college, has revelled in self-belief since her breakthrough in New York, but admitted the cauldron of a Slam final will be a new experience.
"I don't know how I'm going to feel on Saturday," she said.
"There are going to be moments, games, points where I'm going to be thinking... 'Wow, this could be my first Grand Slam title.'"
Despite being two years younger, Osaka is more experienced on the highest stage and said she has learned to be calmer about big-match occasions.
"I used to weigh my entire existence on if I won or lost a tennis match," she said. "That's just not how I feel any more."