Jennifer Brady leaves Australia without Grand Slam title, but does have new self-belief

United States' Jennifer Brady hits a backhand return to Japan's Naomi Osaka during the women's singles final at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.(AP Photo/Mark Dadswell)

Jennifer Brady's Australian adventure began with 15 days of hard quarantine — stuck in her hotel room because she might have been exposed to COVID-19 while traveling to the country — and ended with her playing for the championship at Melbourne Park.

The 25-year-old American won't be leaving with the Australian Open title after losing to Naomi Osaka 6-4, 6-3 on Saturday. The central Pennsylvania native does depart with a strong sense that she deserves a spot in her sport's upper echelon.

“I mean, I made my first Grand Slam final. So maybe if I wasn’t in quarantine, I would have won. Maybe,” she said with a smile. “Yeah, I don’t think it really hampered me much. Who knows? You know, you really don’t know.”

Brady, who played college tennis at UCLA, was one of 72 players who needed to go into hard lockdown for at least two weeks after they were on a chartered flight with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus upon arrival in Australia.

She couldn't leave her room for any reason at all, so there was a lot of FaceTiming with friends, ordering in food for delivery — and hitting tennis balls against a bed mattress.

Brady was the only singles player in that group who made it to Week 2 of the year's first Grand Slam tournament and thought perhaps the break from routine did her some good, allowing her to rest physically and mentally.

In the biggest match of her career, Brady was even at 4-all at the outset before some jittery mistakes led to a six-game run for Osaka that changed the complexion of things.

Still, Brady leaves with a self-belief she never used to have.

“I belong at this level. I think winning a Grand Slam is totally achievable. It’s within reach,” said Brady, who will rise from No. 24 to No. 13 in the WTA rankings. “Playing out there, obviously, I was nervous. Didn’t go my way. But at the same time, coming off court, I was, like, ‘OK, that feels a little bit normal.’ It felt different than what I was expecting it to feel like. If you were to ask me maybe a year ago, I wouldn’t think it’s possible — or it would feel like it’s like going to Mars.”

She has come so far, so fast, and points to two key factors that helped her: beginning to work with coach Michael Geserer in 2019, and playing against — and practicing with — elite players, which showed her that she could trade swings with the best the sport has to offer.

Consider her resume: When the Australian Open began two weeks ago, Brady’s career record in the tournament was 3-3, including first-round exits last year and in 2018, plus a loss in qualifying in 2019.

Her Grand Slam record was 15-14, and her overall tour-level mark as a pro was below .500, at 54-57.

She owned one career title, which arrived at Lexington, Kentucky, last August, right after tennis resumed following a five-month hiatus caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Brady's Grand Slam breakthrough came when she made it all the way to the semifinals of the U.S. Open in September.

Ran into Osaka there, too, pushing her to three sets before losing.

“I don’t think, you know, she’s God,” Brady said about Osaka, who is now a four-time major champion at age 23. “I think maybe Serena (Williams) is. Maybe she’ll get there.”

Brady’s local roots: Brady is now based in Florida but grew up in the Cumberland Valley School District until she was about 9, when her family moved south, where she attended Chris Evert's tennis academy.

Her family ties in the central Pennsylvania region still run deep. Her father, Pat, graduated from Delone Catholic High School in McSherrystown, Adams County, where he was a standout football player and later an NCAA Division II All-America linebacker at East Stroudsburg University.

Four of her cousins (Nick Brady, Jason Brady, Evan Brady and Austin Brady) were also standout athletes at Delone.

Jennifer Brady still has relatives in the Hanover-Adams area.

Djokovic takes men's title: Novak Djokovic beat Daniil Medvedev 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 to win his ninth Australian Open championship and 18th Grand Slam title.

The No. 1-seeded Djokovic has won the trophy three years in a row at Melbourne Park. He has won six of the last 10 major tournaments overall and his total of 18 Slams moves him within two of the men’s record of 20 shared by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

The No. 4-seeded Medvedev was trying to collect his first Grand Slam title Sunday. But Djokovic used superb serving and his usual baseline excellence to end the Russian’s 20-match winning streak. Medvedev also had won his past 12 matches against Top 10 opponents.