When the newly appointed Australian Diamonds coach Stacey Marinkovich called Cara Koenen to let her know that she had been selected in the squad to play New Zealand in the upcoming Constellation Cup, Koenen remembers bursting into tears.
And then there were two.
After an action-packed fortnight of tennis, which included several former champions crashing out in the early rounds as well as the controversial departure of our local favourite, it is left to two women to fight it out for the ladies’ championship at the 2021 Australian Open.
World number three and 2019 champion Naomi Osaka will start the hottest of favourites to land her fourth Major crown when she lines up against American 22nd seed Jennifer Brady in tomorrow night’s championship match.
The Japanese star arrived Down Under as one of the favourites for the title, after a phenomenal second half of the season which included reaching the final at Cincinnati and claiming her second US Open title at the expense of Victoria Azarenka.
After serving two weeks in quarantine, during which she was allowed outside to practice for up to five hours a day, Osaka reached the semi-finals of the Gippsland Trophy event at Melbourne Park before withdrawing so as to turn her focus to the Australian Open.
The Japanese star, champion here in 2019, was handed a potentially tricky draw which saw her face, in this order, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Caroline Garcia, Ons Jabeur and Garbine Muguruza in the opening four rounds.
All four of these opponents had reached at least one quarter-final, and in Muguruza’s case was a two-time Grand Slam champion who had reached the previous year’s final where she lost to Sofia Kenin.
Against Muguruza, Osaka appeared down and out, dropping the first set, and then coughing up a break in each of the second and third sets, before facing two match points in the ninth game of the deciding set and reeling off the final four games to take the match.
She then showed no mercy from that point onwards, dropping only four games against Hsieh Su-Wei in the quarter-finals before overcoming a poor start to defeat her idol, Serena Williams, in straight sets in the semi-finals.
On the basis of her impressive form, it will be difficult not seeing Osaka land her fourth Major title, which would see her ramp up the pressure on Ashleigh Barty and Simona Halep in the battle for the world number one ranking, currently held by the former.
It comes to show that after the struggles she endured upon winning her first Australian Open title and then becoming world number one in January 2019, the 23-year-old is adapting well to the pressure and is shaping as the next great superstar of women’s tennis.
Facing her on the opposite side of the net is American 22nd seed Jennifer Brady, who has risen through the ranks as another potential successor to the Williams sisters after enjoying a breakthrough 2020 season.
The 25-year-old from Harrisburg reached her maiden Grand Slam quarter-final at the US Open, notably defeating 2016 champion Angelique Kerber in the fourth round to do so, before falling to Osaka in the semi-finals in the match dubbed the best of the season.
She also won her maiden WTA title in the weeks leading up to that major, which for the first time in Open Era history saw the hundreds of thousands of fans who normally pack Flushing Meadows in August-September locked out of the precinct due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was a far cry from her Australian Open result at the start of the year, where she drew Simona Halep in the first round and was beaten in straight sets, despite holding several set points in the first.
Here at Melbourne Park, Brady won her first four matches in straight sets, before facing more serious challenges against Jessica Pegula and Karolina Muchova in the quarter and semi-finals, respectively.
Brady played a sub-par opening set against compatriot Pegula before rediscovering her best tennis to win in three, while she was also taken the distance against Muchova, who had knocked out top seed Ashleigh Barty in her preceding quarter-final match.
The championship match against Osaka will be the only time she faces someone ranked in the top 25 at this year’s Australian Open, and it will come in the championship match which will be a whole new experience for her.
Making Brady’s run to the final all the more remarkable is the fact that she was one of several players forced into hard quarantine for 14 days after she caught the same flight as a passenger who later tested positive to COVID-19.
By contrast, this will be the Japanese player’s fourth Major final, and she knows what it takes to succeed on the big stage, never losing when she has reached the quarter-finals at any Major.
She went all the way at the US Open in 2018 and 2020, on either side of capturing the Australian Open title in 2019. Each of those three wins came at the expense of former Major champions, namely Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova, respectively.
This will, however, be the first time Osaka faces an opponent who had never previously won a Major title, let alone reached the final, and on that basis the 23-year-old will start as the favourite to salute at Melbourne Park for the second time.
Now that you’ve got all the background info, it’s time to crunch the all-important numbers below.
Saturday, February 20
Rod Laver Arena
All matches: Osaka 2-1
At the Majors: Osaka 1-0
In finals: First meeting
Last meeting: Osaka won 7-6 (7-1), 3-6, 6-3, semi-final, 2020 US Open
Jennifer Brady’s road to the final
Round 1: defeated Aliona Bolsova (ESP) 6-1, 6-3
Round 2: defeated Madison Brengle (USA) 6-1, 6-2
Round 3: defeated Kaja Juvan (SLO) 6-1, 6-3
Round 4: defeated  Donna Vekic (CRO) 6-1, 7-5
Quarter-final: defeated Jessica Pegula (USA) 4-6, 6-2, 6-1
Semi-final: defeated  Karolina Muchova (CZE) 6-4, 3-6, 6-4
Naomi Osaka’s road to the final
Round 1: defeated Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (RUS) 6-1, 6-2
Round 2: defeated Caroline Garcia (FRA) 6-2, 6-3
Round 3: defeated  Ons Jabeur (TUN) 6-3, 6-2
Round 4: defeated  Garbine Muguruza (ESP) 4-6, 6-4, 7-5
Quarter-final: defeated Hsieh Su-wei (TPE) 6-2, 6-2
Semi-final: defeated  Serena Williams (USA) 6-3, 6-4
The stats that matter
1. This is Jennifer Brady’s first Grand Slam final, while for Naomi Osaka this is her fourth.
2. Osaka is bidding to become the first woman this century to win her first four Major finals.
3. This is the first Major final in which Osaka has not faced a former Grand Slam champion.
4. This is the second consecutive Australian Open final to feature a first-time Grand Slam finalist (after Sofia Kenin last year).
5. If Osaka wins the title, she will join Caroline Wozniacki (2018), Li Na (2014), Serena Williams (2003 and 2005) and Jennifer Capriati (2002) among those who had to save at least one match point in an earlier match in the tournament.
6. Jennifer Brady is the eighth different American woman to reach a Major final this century, after the Williams sisters, Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati, Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens and Sofia Kenin, and the fifth to do so at the Australian Open.
7. Brady is aiming to become the lowest-ranked American woman to win the title since Serena Williams (ranked 81st) won the title in 2007.
8. Brady is aiming to match Kenin’s feat of defeating a former Major champion to win her first Major title at the Australian Open. Others to have done so include Angelique Kerber (2016), Victoria Azarenka (2012), Amelie Mauresmo (2006) and Jennifer Capriati (2001).
Naomi Osaka in straight sets.
Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic is the first man into Sunday night’s men’s final, after he ended the dream run of Russian qualifier Aslan Karatsev with a straight-sets win that ended just seven minutes short of two hours.
Djokovic showed no mercy against Karatsev, who was contesting his first Major semi-final after coming through qualifying to reach his first Grand Slam main draw, winning 6-3, 6-4, 6-2.
He has now reached his ninth Australian Open final, where he will be looking to keep his unbeaten record intact, having won on each of his previous eight occasions dating back to 2008.
Victory in Sunday night’s final would not only see him claim his ninth title at Melbourne Park, but it would also make up exactly half of his 18 Major titles (he has also won five Wimbledon titles, three US Open titles and one French Open title).
Awaiting him in the final will be the winner of the other semi-final between Daniil Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas, to be played this evening.
Medvedev is aiming to become the first Russian man to reach the Australian Open final since Marat Safin in 2005 and will start as the slight favourite against Tsitsipas, who has to back up after his momentous come-from-behind victory over Rafael Nadal on Wednesday night.
The fourth seed has won five of their six meetings, including a second-round match at the 2018 US Open, however, the Greek star won their last meeting at the 2019 ATP Finals, so it will be difficult to predict a winner with any real confidence.
Friday, February 19
Rod Laver Arena
Night session – from 7:30pm
 Daniil Medvedev (RUS) vs  Stefanos Tsitsipas (GRE)