After coming close last year, Jennifer Brady reached her first Grand Slam final with a gripping three-set victory over Karolina Muchova that featured a mammoth final game.
The American and her massive ground strokes ultimately got the better of the Czech’s all-around game, 6-4 3-6 6-4, at Australian Open 21 to set up an appetising finale with on-fire Naomi Osaka.
Brady converted on her fifth match point and sunk to her knees at Rod Laver Arena, minutes after thinking she had already won only to realise her backhand had been called long.
Muchova nearly kept the affair going while Brady’s big first serve dried up, seeing three break points vanish, as the returning crowd showed their appreciation of the battle in front of them.
Brady and Osaka are no strangers.
They faced off in September’s US Open semifinals, producing a three-set classic that prompted Osaka to say during the Australian summer that it was one of the top two matches she has ever played.
Osaka prevailed in New York that day and went on to lift a third Grand Slam trophy, all part of her current 20-match win streak.
Thursday’s clash certainly wasn’t vintage but the conclusion surely made up for it. Brady found her game at the right time, in the third set, after a tally of 12 winners and 30 unforced errors in the first two sets.
Brady does thrive on hard courts. The 25-year-old has dropped two sets at Melbourne Park after her spell in hard quarantine.
That is not surprising, since the world No.24 only relinquished 24 games in five matches en route to her maiden title in Lexington in the US Open build-up. Once on a roll, stopping her requires something special.
Muchova ended Ash Barty’s hopes in Wednedsay’s quarterfinals, rallying from a set and break down against the world No.1 in what was another comeback for her.
The world No.27 earlier overturned set deficits of 4-0 and 5-0 against two higher seeds, Elise Mertens and Karolina Pliskova.
But Brady ensured there was no comeback in Muchova’s first Grand Slam semifinal.
Muchova said she felt dizzy and almost fainted in Wednesday’s stifling conditions.
She seemed more comfortable against Brady in what was another hot day, though far less humid.
Brady gave Muchova no chance in the early going, racing out to a 2-0, 40-15 advantage. Clean stuff, the precision matching the Pennsylvanian's bulldozing power.
Quickly and somewhat inexplicably, though, Brady lost serve for 2-1 — and hung on for the rest of the set.
She overturned deficits of 15-30 in her next two service games, then 0-30 at 4-4. Brady likes to be aggressive but perhaps it was a case of too aggressive, too early.
Was playing on back-to-back days after a three-set win over friend Jessica Pegula a factor?
Nonetheless, Brady edged in front 5-4 and serving to stay in the opener, Muchova buckled with a double fault into the net on a first set point.
Brady struck five winners and 17 unforced errors in the set.
Taking the first set didn’t change the flow of the encounter, however, as Muchova surged to eight of the first nine points of the second for a 2-0 advantage.
A frustrated Brady more than once whacked her left hand with her racquet.
Muchova’s quick hands at the net were evident in the eighth game to get to 5-3, holding firm and engineering a drop volley from a well struck Brady backhand.
The winners flowed from Muchova, including a sublime backhand return, backhand down the line and forehand return winner in the ninth game.
Another double fault ended a set, this one long from Brady after a 40-15 lead.
Muchova cruised to a hold to start the third. She seemed the more likely winner, especially after Brady dumped a regulation volley into the net for 0-15.
Brady, though, continued to move forward and gained a pivotal hold with her best tennis for a while. It jolted Muchova.
A double fault and wild forehand wide by the Czech contributed to dropping serve for 1-2 and Brady regained the momentum. And that very early first-set form.
When the pair met in Prague in 2019, the match ended with Muchova claiming a third-set tiebreak.
Down 4-2 in the third, she would have taken it again — and almost got it.
Trying to get past the finish line and into new territory is never easy and Brady duly let out a roar when holding for 5-3 with shadows now covering most of the court.
Could she close it out? Yes, dramatically.
Muchova thwarted the first match point thanks to a fine forehand and on the second, Brady thought it was over and sunk to her knees. Agonisingly, her ground stroke actually sailed long.
Muchova earned a break point but then sent a second serve return wide and another second-serve return into the net accounted for the second break chance.
The tug-of-war ensued until Brady, still not finding a first serve, sealed passage with Muchova’s forehand long.
“I can’t feel my legs. My legs are shaking, my heart is racing,” said Brady after the win.
“I came out a little strange today. I was super excited but at the same time pretty flat footed. My legs felt fresh but at the same time were not moving. I felt like I was stuck in mud. I didn't pick up my intensity until the beginning of the third set.”
“I’m obviously pretty excited to be in the final,” said Brady. “It’s an incredible achievement. I think it will be a really tough match. Obviously she (Osaka) has won a few Grand Slams. I think it’ll be a really good match.”