Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and an Australian Open semifinal years in the making

Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka
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Had the Australian Open been played in its usual late January window, Serena Williams didn’t think she would have reached this point: a semifinal with Naomi Osaka, their first major meeting since that unforgettable 2018 U.S. Open final.

Had the Australian Open been played in January, Williams didn’t think she would have played a single match in Melbourne.

“I couldn’t practice because of my Achilles,” Williams said on Feb. 1, her first press conference since Sept. 30, when she withdrew before her French Open second-round match, saying she was “struggling to walk.” “I needed every time. I don’t think I would have been here if it was during the regular season. So, whew, that was an unwanted blessing, I would say, but it was much needed.”

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Women | Men

Williams goes into the Osaka showdown (Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET) as an underdog. But with her play in the first five rounds, the 10th seed has only bettered her chances to win a 24th Grand Slam singles title to tie Margaret Court‘s all-time record.

The Williams-Osaka winner gets American Jennifer Brady (22nd seed) or Czech Karolina Muchova (25th seed) in Saturday’s final.

Williams, also nursing a shoulder injury before the event, sprinted past her first three opponents while wearing a Florence Griffith Joyner-inspired outfit. In the round of 16, she took out seventh seed Aryna Sabalenka in a three-set slugfest that had the sport’s experts marveling at the 39-year-old mom’s movement.

“She’s playing as well as I’ve seen her play for a long time,” No. 2 seed Simona Halep‘s coach, Darren Cahill, said before the quarterfinals. “She’s moving as well as I’ve seen her move and defend in the last four or five years.”

The next day, Williams outplayed Halep 6-3, 6-3 to reach the semis.

After that match came a moment: Williams, exiting Rod Laver Arena in a tunnel, began swinging her right arm and bobbing her head as if to music while ascending stairs. It appeared she then noticed a world feed camera, stopped and smiled as she marched carrying her bags out of view.

Williams’ play and that mini dance brought back memories from her peak runs. Most notably crushing Maria Sharapova in the 2012 Olympic final 6-0, 6-1, followed by her most famous post-match dance.

After the Halep match, a reporter told Williams that she won consecutive 20- and 12-shot rallies. The question: When was the last time you felt like those kinds of rallies belonged to you?

“It’s been a long minute,” she answered, smiling. “I think 19 … 1926. The summer of 1926 I think was the last time I felt that.”

This will be Williams’ sixth major semifinal since she returned from life-threatening 2017 childbirth, most of any woman on tour.

Osaka is second on that list, but Williams would trade places. Osaka is 6-0 in semifinals and finals in that span. Williams has four runners-up, stuck on 23 majors since winning the Australian Open while pregnant four years ago.

One of those finals pitted Williams against Osaka at the 2018 U.S. Open.

Williams famously got into an argument with a chair umpire after her coach was caught trying to relay a signal from the stands. She was penalized a game. Osaka closed out her first major title, and the trophy ceremony was overrun with boos from the New York crowd over what happened with Williams.

Williams consoled a tearful Osaka at the time, and months later said she apologized to her in writing.

“I think we both have had closure,” Williams said after beating Halep.

Osaka, the pre-event favorite, is on a 19-match win streak of her own. Her last defeat was more than a year ago. But none of those matches came against Williams (though they played a late January exhibition in Adelaide, won by Williams).

In fact, Williams won their only meeting since the 2018 U.S. Open — in straight sets in 2019. And Williams is regularly in Osaka’s view, if not on her mind. Osaka said this week that she always watches Williams’ matches.

“I feel really intimidated when I see her on the other side of the court,” she said.

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Germany opens bobsled worlds with double gold; Kaillie Humphries gets silver

Laura Nolte Bobsled
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Germans Laura Nolte and Johannes Lochner dethroned the reigning Olympic and world champions to open the world bobsled championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland, this weekend.

Nolte, the Olympic two-woman champion driver, won the four-run monobob by four tenths of a second over American Kaillie Humphries, who won the first world title in the event in 2021 and the first Olympic title in the event in 2022. Another German, Lisa Buckwitz, took bronze.

In the two-man, Lochner became the first driver to beat countryman Francesco Friedrich in an Olympic or world championships event since 2016, ending Friedrich’s record 12-event streak at global championships between two-man and four-man.

Friedrich, defeated by 49 hundredths, saw his streak of seven consecutive world two-man titles also snapped.

Lochner, 32, won his first outright global title after seven Olympic or world silvers, plus a shared four-man gold with Friedrich in 2017.

Swiss Michael Vogt drove to bronze, one hundredth behind Friedrich. Geoff Gadbois and Martin Christofferson filled the top American sled in 18th.

Americans Steven Holcomb and Steven Langton were the last non-Germans to win a world two-man title in 2012.

Bobsled worlds finish next weekend with the two-woman and four-man events.

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Novak Djokovic wins 10th Australian Open, ties Rafael Nadal for most men’s Slam titles

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Novak Djokovic climbed into the Rod Laver Arena stands to celebrate his 10th Australian Open championship and record-tying 22nd Grand Slam title Sunday and, after jumping and pumping his fists with his team, he collapsed onto his back, crying.

When he returned to the playing surface, Djokovic sat on his sideline bench, buried his face in a white towel and sobbed some more.

This trip to Australia was far more successful than that of a year ago, when he was deported from the country because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19. And Djokovic accomplished all he could have possibly wanted in his return: He resumed his winning ways at Melbourne Park and made it back to the top of tennis, declaring: “This probably is the, I would say, biggest victory of my life.”

Only briefly challenged in the final, Djokovic was simply better at the most crucial moments and beat Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5). As a bonus, Djokovic will vault from No. 5 to No. 1 in the ATP rankings, a spot he already has held for more weeks than any other man.

“I want to say this has been one of the most challenging tournaments I’ve ever played in my life, considering the circumstances. Not playing last year; coming back this year,” Djokovic said, wearing a zip-up white jacket with a “22” on his chest. “And I want to thank all the people that made me feel welcome, made me feel comfortable, to be in Melbourne, to be in Australia.”

The 35-year-old from Serbia stretched his unbeaten streak in Melbourne to 28 matches, the longest run there in the Open era, which dates to 1968. He adds trophy No. 10 to the seven from Wimbledon, three from the U.S. Open — where he also was absent last year because of no coronavirus shots — and two from the French Open, to match rival Rafael Nadal for the most by a man.

Only two women — Margaret Court, with 24, and Serena Williams, with 23 — are ahead of him.

This was also the 93rd ATP tour-level title for Djokovic, breaking a tie with Nadal for the fourth-most.

“I would like to thank you for pushing our sport so far,” Tsitsipas told Djokovic.

Djokovic was participating in his 33rd major final, Tsitsipas in his second — and the 24-year-old from Greece also lost the other, at the 2021 French Open, to Djokovic.

On a cool evening under a cloud-filled sky, and with a soundtrack of chants from supporters of both men prompting repeated pleas for quiet from the chair umpire, Djokovic was superior throughout, especially so in the two tiebreakers.

He took a 4-1 lead in the first, then reeled off the last three points. He led 5-0 in the closing tiebreaker and, when it finished, he pointed to his temple before screaming, a prelude to all of the tears.

“Very emotional for us. Very emotional for him,” said Djokovic’s coach, Goran Ivanisevic. “It’s a great achievement. It was a really tough three weeks for him. He managed to overcome everything.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Tsitsipas was willing to engage in the kind of leg-wearying, lung-searing back-and-forths upon which Djokovic has built his superlative career. How did that work out? Of points lasting at least five strokes, Djokovic won 43, Tsitsipas 30.

Then again, on those rare occasions that Tsitsipas did charge the net, Djokovic often conjured up a passing shot that was too tough to handle.

It’s not as though Tsitsipas played all that poorly, other than a rash of early miscues that seemed to be more a product of tension than anything.

It’s that Djokovic was too unyielding. Too accurate with his strokes, making merely 22 unforced errors, 20 fewer than his foe. Too speedy and flexible chasing shots (other than on one second-set point, when, running to his left, Djokovic took a tumble).

“I did everything possible,” said Tsitsipas, who also would have moved to No. 1 with a victory, replacing Carlos Alcaraz, who sat out the Australian Open with a leg injury.

Perhaps. Yet Djokovic pushes and pushes and pushes some more, until it’s the opponent who is something less than perfect on one swing, either missing or providing an opening to pounce.

That’s what happened when Tsitsipas held his first break point — which was also a set point — while ahead 5-4 in the second and Djokovic serving at 30-40. Might this be a fulcrum? Might Djokovic relent? Might Tsitsipas surge?

Uh, no.

A 15-stroke point concluded with Djokovic smacking a cross-court forehand winner that felt like a statement. Two misses by Tsitsipas followed: A backhand long, a forehand wide. Those felt like capitulation. Even when Tsitsipas actually did break in the third, Djokovic broke right back.

There has been more than forehands and backhands on Djokovic’s mind over the past two weeks.

There was the not-so-small matter of last year’s legal saga — he has alternately acknowledged the whole thing served as a form of motivation but also said the other day, “I’m over it” — and curiosity about the sort of reception he would get when allowed to enter Australia because pandemic restrictions were eased.

He heard a ton of loud support, but also dealt with some persistent heckling while competing, including applause after faults Sunday.

There was the sore left hamstring that has been heavily bandaged for every match — until the final, that is, when only a single piece of beige athletic tape was visible.

And then there was the complicated matter of his father, Srdjan, being filmed with a group of people with Russian flags — one with an image of Vladimir Putin — after Djokovic’s quarterfinal. The tournament banned spectators from carrying flags of Russia or Belarus, saying they would cause disruption because of the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Djokovic and his father said it was a misunderstanding; Srdjan thought he was with Serbian fans.

Still, Srdjan Djokovic did not attend his son’s semifinal or the final.

No matter any of it, Djokovic excelled as he so often has.

“He is the greatest,” Tsitsipas said, “that has ever held a tennis racket.”

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