In the middle of the first set, sensing her peril, Serena Williams bent at the waist and screamed to herself.
“Make a shot,” she yelled. “Make a shot.”
Williams’ latest quest for her 24th Grand Slam championship ran into the buzzsaw known as Naomi Osaka in the Australian Open semifinals. The 23-year-old showed she’s the far superior player right now, shaking off early nerves .
Brandishing power, precision and poise, Osaka simply overwhelmed Serena. With the victory, she advanced to the finals seeking her fourth grand slam and second consecutive dating back to the U.S. Open. She’ll face either Jennifer Brady or Karolina Muchova.
For Williams, the result was discouraging, no doubt. Her quest to tie, and eventually best, Margaret Court’s career grand slam record, is part of what keeps her from retiring. Each chance that skips by, the likelihood of accomplishing her goal diminishes.
After the match, Wiilliams broke down in tears and ended a news conference early after being asked about the match.
Here’s Serena choking up and walking out on her press conference pic.twitter.com/99YwaDWBlI
— Dan Wolken (@DanWolken) February 18, 2021
“The difference today was errors,” she said prior. “I made so many errors today. Honestly there were opportunities … but I made so many errors.”
Yet Williams showed that, at 39 years old and the mother of a 3-year-old, there’s still plenty of promise for her 2021 season.
Serena dropped just one set to reach the semis. She looked to be in her best shape since giving birth in 2017. She moved well. She served with power. She exhibited some speed. She was focused. And despite her advancing age often looked like her peak self during the tournament.
The problem in the semis was the opponent. Williams can still beat plenty of top players. Often the match will be determined by her performance -- if it’s good, she wins; not so good, she loses.
Osaka is a different-level challenge, though. She’s ranked third in the world, but is likely the best actual player. That’s certainly true when she is on her game.
“I was just really nervous and scared at the beginning,” Osaka said on ESPN. “The biggest thing [to settling in] is having fun. … It is always an honor to play her.”
Williams won her 23rd career Grand Slam at the 2017 Australian Open and then announced she was pregnant. Since becoming a mother, this was her 11th major appearance. She’s reached four finals, but fell short in all of them, including a 2018 U.S. Open loss to Osaka.
Her numerical quest is not relevant in her comparisons to Court, who won a number of Australian Opens at a time when many top players didn’t travel to the event. Serena is almost universally hailed as the superior player.
Perhaps the only real contender in the debate for greatest of all time is Steffi Graf, who won 22 majors. Graf completely dominated the sport when she won 20 majors across just a nine-year span. Serena’s longevity continues to weigh in her favor. Graf retired at 30. Pushing 40, Serena remains among the top players in the world.
The question of how long she can keep up the pursuit has hovered over her for the past couple of years as injuries and fatigue often derailed her legendary serving and ground stroke ability. She dismissed any suggestions that she was signaling to the crowd after the match that this was her last Australian Open.
“If I ever say farewell,” she said with a smile, “I wouldn’t tell anyone.”
Either way, she should leave Melbourne knowing she played some of her best tennis since becoming a mother. If she can maintain this physical condition, then she’ll be an absolute contender the rest of the year, especially at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open where she tends to thrive of late.
At least if she finds a way to avoid Naomi.
Osaka has thus far shown herself to be a bit of a streak player in major championships. She’s either upset in the early rounds, or she wins the tournament. In beating Serena, she ran her record in Grand Slam quarters, semis and finals to 14-0.
Essentially, once Osaka rallied back from two match points to defeat Garbine Muguruza in the fourth round, Williams’ fate was set. She can’t beat this Naomi Osaka.
If anything, Serena should recognize the dominance. Osaka was born in Japan but her family moved to New York when she was 3.
Her father, Leonard Francois, decided to teach his two daughters -- Naomi has an older sister, Mari -- to play tennis on the public courts near their Long Island home the way Serena’s father, Richard Williams, taught Serena and her older sister Venus back in Compton, California.
Naomi studied Serena relentlessly. The family even traveled to watch the Williamses compete in tournaments.
“I was a little kid watching her play,” Naomi said.
For years, Naomi’s mantra on the court and in training was “WWSD”: “What Would Serena Do?”
So when Williams broke Osaka in the second set to make it 4-4 and offer a glimmer of hope for an epic comeback, Naomi responded by winning eight consecutive points to mercilessly close out the match. It was Serena-esque.
“Just to be out on the court playing against her, for me, is a dream,” Osaka said. “[In the end, though], you're a competitor and this is another competitor.”
For over two decades Serena Williams ran things around here. But right now, this is Naomi Osaka’s sport.
Had the bracket broken her way, Serena looked good enough to scratch out another major. She certainly looked good enough to contend in nearly every match. She made it clear that that No. 24, or even 25, isn’t some pipe dream.
Except if she finds Naomi Osaka staring back from the other side of the net. There may not be any answer for that. Not now. Not ever.
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