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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2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup schedule, results

FIBA Women's World Cup
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The U.S. goes for its fourth consecutive title at the FIBA World Cup in Sydney — and eighth global gold in a row overall when including the Olympics.

A’ja Wilson, a two-time WNBA MVP, and Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP, headline a U.S. roster that, for the first time since 2000, includes neither Sue Bird (retired) nor Diana Taurasi (injured).

The new-look team includes nobody over the age of 30 for the first time since 1994, before the U.S. began its dynasty at the 1996 Atlanta Games. The Americans have won 52 consecutive games between worlds and the Olympics dating to the 2006 Worlds bronze-medal game.

The field also includes host Australia, the U.S.’ former primary rival, and Olympic silver medalist Japan.

Nigeria, which played the U.S. the closest of any foe in Tokyo (losing by nine points), isn’t present after its federation withdrew the team over governance issues. Spain, ranked second in the world, failed to qualify.

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2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup Schedule

Date Time (ET) Game Round
Wed., Sept. 21 8:30 p.m. Puerto Rico 82, Bosnia and Herzegovina 58 Group A
9:30 p.m. USA 87, Belgium 72 Group A
11 p.m. Canada 67, Serbia 60 Group B
Thurs., Sept. 22 12 a.m. Japan 89, Mali 56 Group B
3:30 a.m. China 107, South Korea 44 Group A
6:30 a.m. France 70, Australia 57 Group B
8:30 p.m. USA 106, Puerto Rico 42 Group A
10 p.m. Serbia 69, Japan 64 Group B
11 p.m. Belgium 84, South Korea 61 Group A
Fri., Sept. 23 12:30 a.m. China 98, Bosnia and Herzegovina 51 Group A
4 a.m. Canada 59, France 45 Group B
6:30 a.m. Australia 118, Mali 58 Group B
Sat., Sept. 24 12:30 a.m. USA 77, China 63 Group A
4 a.m. South Korea 99, Bosnia and Herzegovina 66 Group A
6:30 a.m. Belgium 68, Puerto Rico 65 Group A
Sun., Sept. 25 12:30 a.m. France vs. Mali Group B
4 a.m. Australia vs. Serbia Group B
6:30 a.m. Canada vs. Japan Group B
9:30 p.m. Belgium vs. Bosnia and Herzegovina Group A
11:30 p.m. Mali vs. Serbia Group B
Mon., Sept. 26 12 a.m. USA vs. South Korea Group A
2 a.m. France vs. Japan Group B
3:30 a.m. China vs. Puerto Rico Group A
6:30 a.m. Australia vs. Canada Group B
9:30 p.m. Puerto Rico vs. South Korea Group A
11:30 p.m. Belgium vs. China Group A
Tues., Sept. 27 12 a.m. USA vs. Bosnia and Herzegovina Group A
2 a.m. Canada vs. Mali Group B
3:30 a.m. France vs. Serbia Group B
6:30 a.m. Australia vs. Japan Group B
Wed., Sept. 28 10 p.m. Quarterfinal
Thurs., Sept. 29 12:30 a.m. Quarterfinal
4 a.m. Quarterfinal
6:30 a.m. Quarterfinal
Fri., Sept. 30 3 .m. Semifinal
5:30 a.m. Semifinal
11 p.m. Third-Place Game
Sat., Oct. 1 2 a.m. Final

Annemiek van Vleuten, with broken elbow, becomes oldest to win world road race title

Annemiek van Vleuten
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WOLLONGONG, Australia — Annemiek van Vleuten surprised herself and the rest of cycling by recording the finest win of her career on Saturday at the world road championships.

Overcoming an elbow fracture sustained three days earlier, the Dutch great won her second world road race title with an attack in the last 600 meters that caught the other eight leaders napping.

The 39-year-old rider and her Dutch teammates were in disbelief at the finish after she put the exclamation mark on a 164.3-kilometer event. She became the oldest man or woman to win a world championships road race, according to Gracenote.

The 2019 World champion and reigning Olympic and world time trial winner claimed cycling’s triple crown this year when she landed the Italian, French and Spanish tours.

But for Van Vleuten, who will retire at the end of next season, what she did on Saturday was extra special.

“Maybe this is my best victory . . . I am still speechless, I still can’t believe it,” she said. “It took me some time to realize I’d really pulled it off because I’m waiting for the moment that they tell me there was someone in front or it was a joke. I had the feeling it cannot be true.”

She crashed in Wednesday’s mixed team relay at the worlds and sustained the fracture, describing the pain during Saturday’s race as “hell.”

The win also continues the domination of the Dutch women, who have finished on the road race podium at all but three of the last 20 worlds.

Earlier Saturday, Britain’s Zoe Backstedt celebrated her 18th birthday by turning the junior road event into a one-woman race.

In wet and cold conditions, Backstedt cycled away from the peloton with a solo attack at 10 kms and stayed clear for the remaining 57 kms to win by more than two minutes. Eglantine Rayer of France was second ahead of Dutch rider Nienke Vinke.

Backstedt retained her junior road race title and also is a world champion on the track and in cyclocross.

The championships end Sunday with the men’s road race.

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