Jennifer Brady has the game to contain US Open favorite Naomi Osaka

Jennifer Brady had a calm demeanor as she took the court for a US Open quarterfinal match against Yulia Putintseva on Tuesday at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

A casual observer would never have known that it was the 25-year-old American’s first major quarterfinal. When the last point was won after just 69 minutes, Brady held her arms above her head and gave a relieved smile. There was no yelling, excessive celebration or tears of joy.

Although Brady appeared as if she had been there before, she later confessed how anxious she was.

“Coming into the match today, honestly, I was feeling like I was going to poop my pants, but I was very nervous,” she said. “I just tried to really stay calm and keep it cool as a cucumber out there.”

Brady will have to do just that again as she prepares for the biggest match of her career in Thursday’s semifinal against 2018 US Open champion and world No. 9 Naomi Osaka. ESPN analyst Cliff Drysdale predicted that it will be a “slugfest for the ages.”

“Naomi has won, you know, a Grand Slam,” Brady said. “She’s obviously a great player. Very powerful, big serve, big shots off the baseline, one-two punch.”

Brady, currently ranked No. 41, is undoubtedly the underdog heading into the match. Osaka is riding momentum from her stellar play throughout the tournament, as well as her growing commitment to social justice. Brady has yet to drop a set in the tournament and has surged since the sport restarted last month following a suspension because of the coronavirus pandemic. She won her first WTA title at the Top Seed Open in August.

Now, she will have to find a way to contain Osaka.

“Being able to play defense against Osaka is really important,” 21-time major doubles champion and ESPN analyst Pam Shriver said. “So that’s going to have to be No. 1. She’s going to have to be physically 100 percent. I think she’s going to have to think about the serve because this is even a better returner than anyone else she’s seen so far. So really be thoughtful. Examine what serves really work against Osaka. I think she’ll need to be resilient during Osaka’s streaks and hang in there as best she can and figure out how to turn it around.

“But Brady can beat anyone the way she’s playing right now.”

It has been an unorthodox journey for Brady. She played for two seasons at UCLA, then worked her way up the rankings at the ITF level. After feeling like her game wasn’t improving, she began working with coach Michael Geserer following the 2019 season. She spent her offseason training with him in his native Germany. It seems clear that her decisions are now paying off.

“It’s been great to see her evolution,” said Martin Blackman, the general manager of player development for the USTA. “I know she’s talked about how important it was for her to go to UCLA and mature physically, mentally and emotionally, and I think that shows she’s got perspective on her journey. And the connection she’s made with her coach … it just shows she’s willing to invest in herself and put in the work.

“She’s always had a really big serve and a really big forehand, but now she’s moving well, she’s defending well, she can clean it up at the net, her slice is solid, and her movement has just gotten so much better. I think she has a real chance to win [this tournament].”

Brady is the first former college player since 1987 to reach the women’s semifinals at the US Open. If she reaches the final, it will be a first for a college player since Billie Jean King in 1974.

Osaka has said that she doesn’t feel like the favorite going into the match, and she called Brady “a big threat” on Tuesday following her 6-3, 6-4 victory over Shelby Rogers. “She has the variety I wish I had, so I’m really jealous,” Osaka said of Brady.

Although fans might be surprised by Brady’s recent success, it’s clear that her peers aren’t. Friend and fellow American player Coco Vandeweghe, who is recovering from hand surgery and missed the US Open, pointed at Brady’s early season results (she reached the quarterfinals at Brisbane and the semifinals at Dubai) as hints of what was to come.

“I think this summer has shown she can beat anyone in the world,” Vandeweghe said. “Naomi is an amazing player, so there is no doubt the match will be tough for both players, but it will be great to watch.”

Can Brady continue her run and advance to Saturday’s final? Will her variety, powerful forehand and dominant serve be enough to catapult her to victory over Osaka? We will have to wait and see.

But in Shriver’s mind, this is just the beginning for Brady, regardless of the outcome.

“She’s been at this a long time and is now seeing all the sacrifices and hard work pay off,” Shriver said. “So I think 25 is actually a perfect time to start to come into your own. If she stays healthy, with that serve she has, no matter when her time at this tournament ends, she should really envision herself in this position deep into the second week many, many, many more times.”

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