Naomi Osaka beat Serena Williams in straight sets at the Australian Open on Thursday, setting up a meeting in the final with Jennifer Brady, who fought past Karolina Muchova in three sets in her semi-final.
I have this mentality that people don't remember the runners-up. You might, but the winner's name is the one that's engraved. Naomi Osaka
Top flight tennis involves dreams and heartbreak since in every match there has to be one winner and another loser.
Williams was bidding for a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title but, at the age of 39, she again fell short on her 10th attempt since winning AO17 when she was pregnant with her daughter Olympia.
Osaka has a 4th Grand Slam title in her sights at 23, 16 years younger than her semi-final opponent, who is also her idol.
It was inevitable that one of these dreams would be shattered on Rod Laver Arena.
Sitting in the stands with the fans, who were allowed back after 5 days of lockdown in Melbourne, was the 2020 champion Sofia Kenin after enduring an emergency appendectomy on Monday.
Kenin’s dream of defending her title was shattered early in the first week when she lost in the second round to Kaia Kanepi and then fell in the first round of the WTA 250 Phillip Island Trophy on Sunday, but she was spotted in the stands with her dad, giddy as any fan to witness history being made.
Osaka, the No 3 seed, charged past 23-time major champion Williams, 6-3 6-4, to put herself one win away from her second AO crown, while 22nd-seeded Brady outlasted Muchova, seeded 25, 6-4 3-6 6-4, to advance to her first-ever Grand Slam final..
“I have this mentality that people don’t remember the runners-up,” Osaka said, in her post-match press conference. “You might, but the winner’s name is the one that’s engraved.”
Osaka started out somewhat slowly and it was Williams who dominated at the get-go, striking a strong backhand to force an error from the Japanese and breaking in the opening game, then consolidating with ease for 2-0.
“There was a point when I got broken today, and I was going up to the line to return her serve, in my head I had all these thoughts about how she’s the best server, I’m probably not going to be able to break her,” said Osaka. “But it is what it is.
“Then I told myself to erase those thoughts and just to, like, in a way I was telling myself I don’t care because I can only play one point at a time and I’m going to try my best to play every point as well as I can.”
In fact, Williams was a point away from a 3-0, double-break lead before Osaka got herself on the scoreboard.
“I felt like 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,” said Osaka.
“I think when it was like 2-0, I was just telling myself to control what I can control and try to play within myself instead of thinking about what she would do or anything like that.”
Osaka wrestled back control, making it hard for Williams to challenge her with 20 winners to Serena’s 12, and serves regularly over 120 mph, and overcoming a nervy start to wrap up a hugely impressive win.
The numbers going in were in Williams’ favour, the American having won all her previous 8 semi-finals at Melbourne Park, not having lost to a top-three player at a Grand Slam since 2007, and having beaten Osaka in their last two meetings to gain a measure of revenge for her acrimonious defeat in the 2018 US Open final.
Osaka looked uncharacteristically tight at first and struggled with her ball toss in the bright sunlight, while Williams began with an ace and a confident hold before the Japanese wriggled out of another break point, an ace getting her on the board.
That seemed to click the 23-year-old into gear and, as her timing returned, Williams’ deserted her, the first set quickly disappearing as Osaka won 5 games on the trot to serve it out at the tricky end.
A sizzling crosscourt backhand secured another break for Osaka at the start of the second, with Williams becoming more animated, at one point bellowing ‘make the shot’ at herself.
Osaka had won 8 out of 9 games before Williams could stem the flow with a hold for 1-2.
Rolling on to a 4-2 lead, Osaka misfired with multiple double-faults at 4-3, showing her jitters, and Williams took advantage, breaking back to level at 4-4.
The 3rd seed promptly broke back to love and, this time, nervelessly wrapped up victory in an hour and 15 minutes.
“I was really nervous and scared in the beginning, but I eased my way into it.,” Osaka said on court. “It was about having fun, and it was the first day having a crowd for a while.
“It’s an honour to play her, and I didn’t want to go out really bad so I just tried my best.
“I was a little kid watching her play, so coming up against her on the court for me is a dream.”
Osaka held the edge on the day, hitting 20 winners to Williams’s 12, while also committing 3 fewer unforced errors.
“I never really look at stats or achievements or anything like that,” Osaka said later. “I’m the type of person that’s always trying to go on to the next thing, which may be bad or good.
“I feel like maybe later in my life I’ll appreciate the things that I’ve done more, but as of right now, I feel like I’m chasing records that can’t be broken no matter how hard I try. I think it’s the human trait of not being satisfied.
Williams bid a tearful AO farewell amid questions about whether she may have played at the tournament for the last time.
She gave the crowd inside the Rod Laver Arena a long wave goodbye with her hand on her heart and, later in her post-match press conference, she said: “I don’t know. If I ever say farewell, I wouldn’t tell anyone. So…”
Williams then became tearful during the next question, a relatively mundane enquiry about her unforced errors during the match, and said: “I don’t know. I’m done,” before leaving the room.
Coming up short in her 10th attempt to move level with Margaret Court’s haul of 24 major titles is a bitter pill to swallow.
Looking forward to playing Brady in the final, Osaka said of their 2020 US Open clash: “It was easily one of my most memorable matches. I think it was just super high quality throughout.
“For me, it’s not really surprising at all to see her in another semis or another finals.”
Osaka’s dream, like Brady’s, is still very much alive.