Osaka, Williams Sweep Their Way To Australian Open Semifinals

Naomi Osaka (photo: Natasha Morello/Tennis Australia)

MELBOURNE/WASHINGTON, February 16, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

After Naomi Osaka secured her berth in Tuesday’s quarterfinal round of the Australian Open, she let out an audible sigh during her post-match interview on Rod Laver Arena when she was told she would face Taiwan’s Hsieh Su-Wei, famous throughout the tennis world for her unorthodox playing style.

“I just remember failing when I played against her,” Osaka recalled on Sunday, following her fourth-round victory against Garbiñe Muguruza. “I just remember having, like, so many emotions just because I felt like there wasn’t a lot of things I could control while I was playing her.

“In a sense, whenever I play, I feel like the racquet or the ball is on my racquet. Whenever I play her, there’s a bit of hesitation in that mindset for me. So, yeah, it’s definitely going to be tough.

“At the same time, it’s the quarters of a slam, so it would be weird if it wasn’t tough.”

When Osaka, who has won three Grand Slams – including the 2019 Australian Open to go with a pair of US Open crowns in 2018 and 2020 – was asked to further explain what it is about Hsieh’s game that is so challenging, there was a hint of laughter in her answer. “I mean, have you watched her play? It’s like, ‘What?’

“She’s one of those players that, for me, if it was a video game, I would want to select her character just to play as her. Because my mind can’t fathom the choices she makes when she’s on the court. It’s so fun to watch. It’s not fun to play, but it’s really fun to watch.”

In a battle of Asian-Pacific heroines in the Grand Slam of the Asia-Pacific – with few if no distractions as Rod Laver Arena remained empty of spectators – it was the 23-year-old Osaka from Japan, who prevailed, 6-2, 6-2, in one hour and six minutes to advance into Thursday’s semifinal round. She hit 24 winners, including seven aces, lost just two points on her first serve, saved all three break points she faced and took away Hsieh’s angles and depth with a solid all-court game that resulted in four breaks of the Taiwanese’s serve.

The victory was Osaka’s 31st in her last 33 major hard-court matches and sets up a boffo semifinal on Thursday against Serena Williams.

“Today, it was really important to have a plan, just because she’s an opponent that I’m not really sure what’s going to happen,” said Osaka, who maintained an unblemished record (4-0) in major quarterfinals. “So, just having something to structure myself and not get carried away with what she’s going to do was definitely really important.”

“I think her continued maturity and fitness level – and every part of her game – is getting better,” said ESPN analyst Pam Shriver.

Osaka parlayed an early break of Hsieh’s serve for a 3-1 lead and used both pace and power to hit 10 winners that propelled her to win the 36-minute opening set. It took Osaka a few games to get on track but once she did, the Japanese superstar seemed in full control. A wide return by Hsieh abruptly ended a brief three-shot rally on the second set point as Osaka outscored her opponent 37-25 in the first set.

Then, Osaka went back to work and jumped ahead to a quick 3-0 lead, winning points confidently and with a striking display of execution – none better than a backhand winner that gave her an extra bounce in her step as she went back to her bench needing to win just three more games to move into the semifinal round, where she’s undefeated in Grand Slam semifinals.

Soon, Osaka established a 5-2 lead thanks to a pair of aces and a forehand winner on game point. In the final game, Hsieh saved two match points to gain a deuce point. However, a forehand winner set up a third match point, and this time Osaka cashed it in when Hsieh ended a seven-shot rally with a long return.

With match point secured, Osaka seemed relieved but also happy. She’s just two wins shy of garnering her fourth Grand Slam title. Osaka expressed a big smile on her face as she went to tap Hsieh’s racquet at the net. The victory improved her career head-to-head against the 35-year-old Hsieh to 4-1 and it was the first time any of their matches hadn’t gone three sets.

“I feel like every time I play her, it’s really challenging because I never know exactly what she’s going to do with the ball,” Osaka said during her well-attended post-match press conference. “I think today I just really focused on my game plan. I think it was kind of very clear what I thought I had to do. …

“I couldn’t afford to be lazy with my footwork or anything. I didn’t want to play three sets today.”

During Hsieh’s press conference Sunday after she won her fourth-round match against Marketa Vondrousova, a reporter asked her why she thought her game gave the World No. 3 troubles. Hsieh, thought about the question for a moment, then quipped: “Oh, Naomi!

“We all know she’s a very good player. Anyone plays her, they will get troubles. I not worry about it. She probably going to smash me on the court. I try to play my game, do my job, see what happens.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Hsieh was upbeat when she arrived to meet with a small circle of reporters, both in person and virtually about an hour after the match ended. She was asked how it felt from her point of view on the court against Osaka. After all, Hsieh was appearing in just her first major quarterfinal and had become the oldest player in the Open Era (since 1968) to do so.

“Oh, is not easy,” Hsieh said, smiling as she answered. “My first quarterfinal, so I try to tell myself it’s okay and try to do my best.But looking like only last two shots when Naomi has two match points is when I play my best. So, I’m proud of myself. Next time.”

If Hsieh was showing any pain from losing, it wasn’t evident as she kept a smile on her face throughout her brief press conference.

“Naomi is a good player, we already know. I accept what happened,” she said.

“So, next time, I need to do a little better.”

Williams reaches ninth Australian Open semifinal

Tenth seed Serena Williams advanced to her ninth Australian Open semifinal and 40th major semifinal overall with her 6-3, 6-3 victory over World No. 2 Simona Halep on Rod Laver Arena Tuesday evening. If it seemed that Serena’s latest Grand Slam victory came with ease, that’s because the 23-time major champion from Florida was dialed in and an outdoor hard-court surface is where she’s most comfortable.

During their one hour and 21-minute quarterfinal match, the World No. 11 Williams hit 24 winners that more than made up for her 33 unforced errors and she kept pressure on her Romanian opponent, who made 19 unforced errors and faced 13 break points. Williams was able to cash in on six of those break points. She outpointed Halep 65-53, winning eight of the final 10 points of the match. Her focus throughout was unwavering. Throughout, the 39-year-old Williams’s movement was outstanding, too.

“Movement has always been one of my strengths, and so it’s actually more natural for me to move than for me not,” Williams said during her post-match press conference. “So, it was just kind of like, ‘Oh, that’s how I used to move.’ I’m happy that I’m doing that again and that I put it back into my game.

“I think I was more focused on other things and not focused on something that is actually a strength of mine, has always been a strength of mine, and I had to refocus on that.”

The victory improved Williams’s career head-to-head against Halep to 10-2, including 7-0 on outdoor hard-court surfaces. The last time these two titans met was when Halep beat Williams, 6-2, 6-2, in the 2019 Wimbledon final.

“I feel like I needed to have a good performance today, especially after my last match against her,” Williams said. “So, it was really important to try to play well today. … I knew I couldn’t play worse. So, that was a good thing.”

Halep was able to muster just nine winners, but it wasn’t for a lack of effort. Afterward, she gave due props to Williams. “It was a tough match. She played really well and deserved to win tonight,” she said during her post-match press conference.

“My feeling after this match is that I was not that far, but also, she was strong in the important moments.I accept she beat me, but also if I could be a little bit stronger with the serve the chance could have been a little bit bigger for me.

“In my opinion, I had a good game tonight. I’m not that disappointed about myself. Attitude maybe a little bit negative the whole tournament, but I’m gonna work on this, and I will come back stronger, for sure, with that.”

Meanwhile, Williams’s quest for a 24th Grand Slam crown, which would tie the record held by Australian Margaret Court, continues. On Thursday, Williams will face World No. 3 Naomi Osaka. She was asked to describe what it will be like to her.

“I have an incredible opponent to play, so it would be nice to hopefully keep raising the level of my game,” said Williams, who the last time she reached an Australian Open semifinal, in 2017, she went on to win it all. “I feel like she does everything well. She has a good serve, she has a great return, she’s strong on both sides.”

Osaka will bring a 2-1 advantage in head-to-head appearances against Williams when they meet in two days on Rod Laver Arena. However, a big intangible that Williams owns is experience.

“We’re coming to the point in the tournament where every match is difficult, every match is going to be a fight,” said Osaka during her press conference. “Of course, at the start of the tournament it was like that, too. This is kind of where, like, guts come in. I think everyone’s very nervous; everyone wants to win. So, managing that is definitely important.”

Tuesday’s results

Wednesday’s order of play

What they’re saying