Osaka Beats Serena, Changing Of The Guard?

Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka (photo: Fiona Hamilton/Tennis Australia)

MELBOURNE/WASHINGTON, February 18, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Tenth-seeded Serena Williams of the United States and third-seeded Naomi Osaka of Japan faced each other for the second time at a Grand Slam, when they met in the semifinals of the Australian Open on Thursday afternoon.

In what was their first Grand Slam meeting since their contentious 2018 US Open final, won by Osaka, in which Williams was issued three penalties by chair umpire Carlos Ramos, this was a headline match that lived up to its billing.

However, at the end of their one hour and 15-minute match, it seemed, there was a changing of the guard taking place that was witnessed by 9,661 fans who trekked to Melbourne Park and a worldwide TV audience of millions. Osaka beat Williams, 6-3, 6-4, to reach her fourth Grand Slam final.

Next, Osaka will face No. 22 seed Jennifer Brady of the United States, whose game is built around her powerful groundstrokes. The American from Harrisburg, Pa., defeated No. 25 seed Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic, an all-court player who had been a comeback queen throughout this Aussie fortnight, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4, in one hour and 55 minutes.

Williams, 39, last won a Grand Slam title in 2017 at Melbourne Park, when she was two months pregnant. Since then, she’s remained stuck on 23 major titles, one shy of Australian Margaret Court’s record of 24, but eager to reach a new plateau after reach four major finals. Williams came into to Thursday’s match 8-2 in her last 10 hardcourt matches.

Meanwhile, Osaka, 23, has won three Grand Slams, including the 2019 Australian Open, but with an eagerness and the confidence to win many more. With her quarterfinal win over Hsieh Su-Wei earlier this week, Osaka improved her win-loss record in the final three rounds of major competition to 10-0. Now, after her triumph against Williams – someone whom Osaka idolized growing up – it’s 11-0 and she’s never lost a major final.

The Japanese superstar arrived on Rod Laver Arena for her semifinal showdown with Williams having beaten the future Hall of Famer twice in three meetings, and with a career-best 19-match winning streak. Her last on-court loss came in February of last year in a Fed Cup tie against Spain. Her last hardcourt loss was to Coco Gauff at last year’s Australia Open.

“I think she’s a great competitor and a cool cat,” Williams said about Osaka earlier this week.

Each came into their semifinal having dropped just one set, Osaka to Garbiñe Muguruza in the fourth round – in which she saved match points – and Williams against Aryna Sabalenka, also in the round of 16. In their quarterfinal-round matches on Tuesday, Osaka figured out how to play against the unorthodox style of Hsieh while Williams avenged her 2019 Wimbledon final loss to Simona Halep.

As the two players walked past their names on the way into Rod Laver Arena, as she’s done throughout the tournament, Osaka touched her banner as she passed it.

The match began a with an uneven opening game from Osaka that included a double fault on her serve, caught ball tosses, and eventually her serve was broken with a backhand unforced error. While breaks will likely come at a premium – and Serena had only broken Osaka’s serve three times in their previous meetings – it was not the way that Osaka wanted to start with, especially as she was showing shaky nerves.

“I was definitely really nervous. I don’t know. It’s very intimidating to serve for the first game and see her on the other side of the net,” Osaka said during her post-match press conference.

“For me, 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.

“Yeah, 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.”

Eventually, after an edgy start, Osaka found her rhythm to lead 4-2, showing much mental fortitude that would produce five winning games in a row.

Osaka won the first 38-minute set 6-3 despite serving at just 36 percent with three double faults. Meanwhile, Williams struggled on her second serve returns.

In Grand Slams and against Top 10 competition, Williams had gone on to lose 14 of her last 17 matches when losing the first set. Only time would tell if she could solve Osaka in order to turn the match around.

The second set began with Osaka finding the right angles and a break of Serena’s serve to win her seventh of the last eight games. She consolidated the break with back-to-back service aces (No. 3 and 4) for a quick 2-0 lead before Williams got on the board with a hold at 15. Then, Osaka moved ahead 3-1, at which time the crowd began trying to will Serena back into the match – and Williams ratcheted up the volume of her shrieks, too.

Williams gained at hold at 15 when Osaka netted a return to keep to within a break. Then, Osaka hit her fifth ace and held at 15 for a 4-2 advantage. But Serena wasn’t ready to fold her cards. She held, then broke Osaka at 30 after the World No. 3 double-faulted three times in the game to level the set at 4-all.

However, Osaka refocused and immediately began to work the angles of the court, again. She hit a cross-court backhand winner to break back for a 5-4 lead with the match on her racquet. It was Osaka’s 19th winner.

Then, the unthinkable happened. Osaka served a love game, beginning with her sixth ace followed by three uncharacteristic unforced errors by Williams. Suddenly, it became game, set and match for Osaka.

“I think for me match experience definitely helped me out. For me, this tournament I honestly haven’t felt panicked until I played Muguruza, so I think that match really helped me,” said Osaka, describing her mindset during her semifinal encounter against Williams.

“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. 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.”

Now, Osaka is headed to her fourth Grand Slam final, while Williams must be thinking to herself, “What does the future hold?”

Indeed, will Williams ever get to 24? She lingered on court just a little bit longer than usual, soaking in the applause from the Rod Laver Arena crowd, which showed its appreciation with a standing ovation for the seven-time Australian Open champion. In an emotional goodbye, Serena placed her left hand over her heart and waved to show the fans what they meant to her, before departing for the long walk back to the locker room. Had she played her last match at the Australian Open?

Soon, when she arrived for her press conference after the match, it became evident that the emotions of the moment had caught up to Williams. She struggled in answering a few questions, all the while fighting back tears. The tone of her voice was much different than her earlier press conferences.

“The difference today was errors. I made so many errors today,” Williams said. “So … Honestly, it was opportunities where I could have won. I could have been up 5-love. I just made so many errors. …”

A reporter asked Williams about her gestures on court to the fans. Could it have been her “farewell” moment on Rod Laver Arena? “I don’t know. If I ever say farewell, I wouldn’t tell anyone,” she said.

Tearing up, Williams said, “I’m done.” She got up out of her chair and walked out of the main interview room. Williams did not return. Later, she addressed her fans on Instagram:

Hall of Fame great Chris Evert, who analyzed the semifinal for ESPN said of Williams: “It’s so tough to play your ‘A’ game for seven matches in a row. She’s still playing very good tennis.”

Brady reaches first Grand Slam final

As for Jennifer Brady, she has played solidly throughout her Grand Slam run. The 25-year-old American arrived at her semifinal against Karolina Muchova having lost only 26 games, fewest of any of the semifinalists. Although she would be pushed to three sets before winning – and lost 14 games – Brady remained in fine form and focus, as her 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 winning result attests.

Each of the first two sets were decided by double faults on set point. Then, in the deciding set, Brady went ahead 2-1 on an early break and never faced another break point until the final game of the match.

Although Muchova, 24, fought off four match points and had three break points of her own, on the 18th point of the game – and the final one of the match – Brady at last converted it after Muchova hit a return long.

“It took a lot longer than I hoped for,” Brady said after securing the victory. “I was just so nervous. I couldn’t feel my legs. My arms were shaking. I was just hoping she would miss and she didn’t, and she was playing more aggressive. Then, I would say I started rambling, mumbling on and on and on and on. It was just point by point, point by point, and eventually I was able to close it out.

“To have the fans there is just a different atmosphere. Even if it was first round, to have the fans there cheering, it’s just more emotional.”

By the end of the match, Brady had amassed eight service aces and hit 20 winners and 38 unforced errors, while Muchova hit 21 winners and committed 29 unforced errors. Each broke the other’s serve three times. Muchova outpointed Brady 83-80, but it didn’t matter.

“Credit Brady for being able to handle her nerves,” said Tennis Channel analyst Lindsay Davenport. “At the end, she came through.”

Brady was asked during her post-match press conference what was going through her mind after she won the last point and realized she had won and was going to her first Grand Slam final. She said: “I reached my first final. Yeah, definitely. Yeah, that’s all I was thinking about the last game serving. I was, like, ‘Okay, let’s zone in here and I’m in the finals.’I wasn’t thinking about how good of a match or how tight the score was in the semifinals. I was just looking ahead into the finals.”

Looking ahead to Saturday’s final against Osaka, whom Brady lost to 7-6 (1), 3-6, 6-3 in the US Open semifinals last year and has beaten only once in three career meetings, the American admitted she doesn’t know how she’ll feel. “I can say I can enjoy the moment and just try to play tennis and not really think too much about it,” Brady said.

“But there’s gonna be moments, there’s gonna be games, there’s gonna be points where I’m going to be thinking about, ‘Wow, this could be my first Grand Slam title.’ I will definitely have those thoughts. But it’s more just trying to control the emotions, really.”

Thursday’s results

Friday’s order of play

News & noteworthy

Barbora Krejcikova of the Czech Republic has become a most valuable doubles player. She’s in the finals of both the women’s doubles and the mixed doubles. On Friday, Krejcikova will team with fellow Czech Katerina Siniakova to face No. 2 seeds Elise Mertens of Belgium and Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus in the women’s doubles final. She and Siniakova, seeded third, are former World No. 1s.

Then, this weekend, Krejcikova and Rajeev Ram of the United States will play in the mixed doubles final. They won the 2019 Australian Open mixed doubles title together, and Krejcikova won the 2020 Australian Open mixed doubles with Mate Pavic of Croatia.

“I have felt really good on court … last couple of days I’ve been playing so many matches,” Krejcikova said. “I was lucky that I was able to or have been able to win all of them. So I’m just, like, really, really grateful that I played, that I’m going to play another two matches again.”

By the numbers

What they’re saying

Jennifer Brady on her love affair with playing in Australia:

“Yeah, I love playing in Australia. It feels like home to me. It’s very similar to America, I feel.

“Yeah, I think everyone looks forward to coming to Australia, especially the beginning of the year, the Australian summer. It’s the most exciting.

“For me, I mean, Brisbane is one of my top five favorite tournaments. I don’t know why. It just feels like home. I think it’s the conditions. A little bit more humid there, similar to Florida. I play good tennis in Australia.

“Yeah, I think I feel really comfortable here.”