Naomi Osaka denied Serena Williams‘ latest bid for a 24th Grand Slam singles title and moved one match from a fourth major crown of her own.
Osaka swept Williams 6-3, 6-4 in the Australian Open semifinals on Thursday, her 20th consecutive match win since her last defeat in February 2020.
“It’s always an honor to play [Williams],” said Osaka, who beat Williams in the 2018 U.S. Open final for her breakthrough Slam title. “I just didn’t want to go out really bad. … Just to be on the court playing against her, for me, is a dream. The biggest thing that I’ve learned over the years is … you’re a competitor. You’re playing against another competitor.”
The third seed from Japan plays Saturday’s final against 22nd-seeded American Jennifer Brady, a 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 winner over 25th-seeded Czech Karolina Muchova in a later semifinal. Osaka beat Brady in a high-quality, three-set semifinal en route to the 2020 U.S. Open title.
In a poignant post-semifinal moment, Williams paused on her exit out of Rod Laver Arena. She put her hand over her heart and acknowledged the not-half-full crowd, partially allowed back after a five-day coronavirus lockdown in the area.
Told in a press conference that some wondered if she was almost saying farewell, Williams said, “I don’t know. If I ever say farewell, I wouldn’t tell anyone.”
Williams broke into tears starting to answer the next question, about what went wrong in the match, and ended the press conference after three and a half minutes. Press conference video is here.
“I want her to play forever,” Osaka said. “That’s the little kid in me.”
Williams, in her 11th major tournament since life-threatening 2017 childbirth, once again came just shy of tying Margaret Court‘s all-time major titles record. The 39-year-old owns the record in the Open Era (since 1968), where the standard of competition has been considerably stronger.
Williams has reached six semifinals and four finals in those 11 majors as a mom. She’s lifted strictly runner-up trophies and is no longer the favorite at Slams.
Osaka, even with major titles each of the last three years and increasing spotlight, is still intimidated to see Williams on the other side of the net.
It showed in the opening game in near 90 degrees under a blinding sun with no wind.
Osaka had trouble with her ball toss and was broken. But she regrouped, later reeling off five consecutive games. Neither played well in the opening frame — Osaka got just 36 percent of her first serves in.
“I just started making way too much unforced errors because I was worried about what she would do if I were to hit a soft ball,” Osaka said. “I’ve grown up watching what she does to people’s serves when they’re soft.”
Williams, whose movement in her first five matches in Melbourne was her best since she won her 23rd major title while pregnant four years ago, had four winners to 16 unforced errors in the first set.
“I wouldn’t say I was nervous,” Williams said. “The difference today was errors. I made so many errors today. Honestly, it was opportunities where I could have been up 5-love and I made so many errors.”
Williams tried firing herself up in the second set, yelling “Make a shot! Make a shot!” after a forehand winner on the second point. But Osaka, dictating with more powerful groundstrokes, broke her again moments later.
Osaka tightened up while up 4-3 and serving, committing three double faults to let Williams back into the match. But Osaka broke Williams back at love and served out the match.
Williams lost to a top-three player for the first time in nearly six years, a span that included a win over Osaka in their last meeting in 2019.
Osaka is 32-2 over her last six Grand Slams on hard courts, winning the U.S. Open in 2018 and 2020 and the Australian Open in 2019. She’s bidding to become the third active woman to win at least four majors, joining the Williams sisters.
“I have this mentality that people don’t remember the runners-up,” said Osaka, who is 11-0 at Slams in the quarterfinal stage and beyond. “You might, but the winner’s name is the one that’s engraved. I think I fight the hardest in the finals. I think that’s where you sort of set yourself apart.”
In the men’s tournament, eight-time champ Novak Djokovic swept 114th-ranked Russian qualifier Aslan Karatsev 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 later Thursday for a place in Sunday’s final. The other semifinal, pitting No. 4 seed Daniil Medvedev of Russia and No. 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece, is Friday.
Congratulations on a great fortnight, @serenawilliams.
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) February 18, 2021
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