Australian Open 2021: Naomi Osaka solidifies her claim as the best player in tennis

Osaka dominates Brady to clinch second Australian Open title (2:12)

Naomi Osaka beats Jennifer Brady in straight sets to win her fourth Grand Slam title. (2:12)

Naomi Osaka paused for a moment when asked about her perfect record in major finals. She had just defeated Serena Williams in the Australian Open semifinals and secured her spot in her fourth career championship match.

She maintained a soft-spoken tone, but her message was anything but quiet.

"I have this mentality that people don't remember the runners-up," she said. "You might, but the winner's name is the one that's engraved.

"I think I fight the hardest in the finals. I think that's where you sort of set yourself apart."

Osaka did just that Saturday.

Playing American Jennifer Brady in front of a limited but lively crowd at Rod Laver Arena, the 23-year-old rolled to a 6-4, 6-3 victory in 77 minutes and by night's end was hoisting her fourth Slam trophy. She and Monica Seles are the only women to win their first four major final appearances in the Open era, and she now trails just Serena and Venus Williams with major victories among active players, tied with recently returned Kim Clijsters.

"This win solidifies her as the best player in the world," said Rennae Stubbs, the four-time doubles major champion and ESPN analyst. "That's what it does. I think that there is no question that, certainly on a hard court, she is as dominant as a player has been over the last three years.

"For a while there were these questions about her not liking the spotlight and if that would prevent her from becoming a dominant player, but we can all just push that aside now because that's clearly not the case. We know that she loves it. We know that she can handle the pressure. We know that she likes being the face of women's tennis, and she now is the face of women's tennis."

Although Osaka won't rise to No. 1 in the rankings, due to the pandemic-adjusted points system, and will instead have to settle for No. 2, the number in front of her name is a mere formality. On Saturday, she left no doubt where she stands in the current landscape of women's tennis.

Osaka was the overwhelming favorite entering the match, but she knew getting past first-time finalist Brady wouldn't be easy. The two had battled in the semifinals of the US Open in September in a memorable three-set match in which Osaka said she had "never had to physically and mentally fight so hard" on the court.

Saturday was more straightforward.

Brady held break point at 4-all in the first set before Osaka hit a decisive forehand winner to the sideline. She took the next two points and never faltered again. She won six straight games and remained firmly in control. Osaka had six aces and 16 winners and was unflappable in the most crucial moments.

"She played really well when she had to," Brady said after the match. "She hit good shots when she needed them. In those moments, that's the toughest time to find those shots. You know, to put you on defense when it's the big moments.

"And just to serve out the match like that, you know, she did that also in New York against me. She obviously has confidence in her serve and serving out matches and playing high-risk tennis when it matters. So, yeah, it's tough to face."

After Brady's forehand went long to seal the match, Osaka put her hands above her head and briefly leaned back and smiled, her face awash with joy but no hint of surprise. She confidently and comfortably twirled and waved to the crowd after exchanging a hug with Brady at the net and knew exactly how to act as a champion. She gave a gracious victory speech, hitting all the right marks without a hint of awkwardness, except for asking Brady if she wanted to be called "Jennifer" or "Jenny" and then doing the opposite of what she requested.

It was a far different scene from the ones after her first two Slam titles, at the 2018 US Open and the 2019 Australian Open, where few had expected her to be triumphant against more experienced opponents.

"The first time that I have won both these trophies, I think in a way, I was just a kid," she said in her postmatch news conference. "I didn't really know what I was doing. I was winning my matches, but I wasn't really appreciating the moment, the tournament, how hard it is to even get to the position that I'm in right now."

After catapulting to the No. 1 ranking after those back-to-back major victories, Osaka struggled under the weight of expectations. She split with coach Sascha Bajin and lost in the third round of the French Open. Weeks later, she was handed a shocking first-round exit at Wimbledon. She left her postmatch news conference in tears with many in the sport wondering whether it was simply too much success and pressure too soon.

She didn't quell the doubts with her fourth-round loss in New York in 2019 or a shocking third-round farewell at the hands of 15-year-old Coco Gauff in Melbourne in 2020. But after the suspension of the season in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, Osaka reassessed her attitude and her priorities. She began speaking out on the issues that mattered to her, including systemic racism and police brutality, and traveled to Minneapolis to protest the death of George Floyd.

When the season restarted in August, it didn't take long for Osaka to rediscover her confidence on the court while continuing to use her voice off it. She won her first three matches at the Western & Southern Open, the lead-in tournament for the US Open, and then announced she would be boycotting her semifinal match in the hope of creating conversation in the tennis world around the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

The tournament paused play for the day in support.

Before the US Open got underway a few days later, Osaka set aside seven masks, each bearing the name of a person killed as the result of racial injustice or police brutality, to wear before and after matches. She was able to wear each one during her run to the final, and she credited having a message as motivation. She won the tournament.

She has become a prominent advocate, writing op-eds and appearing in magazines, while lining up one major endorsement after another.

And she's been unbeatable on the tennis court, not losing since the season restarted. Saturday's final marked her 21st straight victory.

It's the longest win streak on the WTA Tour since Serena Williams reached 27 consecutive victories spanning across the 2014 and 2015 seasons.

Williams has long been the leading figure in women's tennis -- dominating the court, the headlines and the sponsorship dollars -- and has spent the past three years since returning from childbirth trying to reclaim her throne. But it's been Osaka who has quietly emerged from Williams' long shadow to claim the top spot. Forbes listed her as the highest-paid female athlete in the world in 2020.

Osaka's 6-3, 6-4 victory over Williams in the semis was perhaps the final statement on the matter.

After two shaky opening games, Osaka regained her composure and won the next five -- all but dismantling the 23-time major champion with a page out of her own playbook, using big serves and powerful groundstrokes. As Williams emotionally left the court, sparking questions about her future, it seemed the torch of being the game's dominant presence had officially been passed.

There have been 11 different major champions since Serena Williams won her most recent Slam title at the Australian Open in 2017 -- with Osaka and Simona Halep (2) the only ones to earn multiple trophies in that span. There has been incessant talk about the depth in the women's game and questions about the ability of the top players to produce consistent results. But Osaka seemed to further differentiate herself Saturday.

Osaka had a tournament-leading 50 aces throughout the fortnight -- 15 more than second-place Serena Williams and 16 more than Brady. She recorded one of the fastest serves at 122 mph, and had a 79% first-serve win percentage for second best at the event.

Osaka has never advanced past the third round at the French Open or Wimbledon, and she has admitted she is not as confident on clay or grass, but she seems more than up for the challenge as she hopes to continue her dominance.

"The funny thing is, I don't look at expectations as a burden anymore," she said Saturday. "I feel like I'm at the point now where it's something that I've worked for. Like, people wouldn't expect things from me if I hadn't done things prior, if that makes sense. I feel like no one expected things of me when I was younger, and now that I have kind of climbed up the ranks, of course there's going to be more pressure, but I feel like also that's motivation, because I also want to do better for myself as well."

With a deadly serve and a cold-as-ice demeanor under pressure -- much like Williams in her prime -- Osaka is now the one her peers have no answers for.