Melbourne – Naomi Osaka took a giant step toward her fourth grand slam title after beating her childhood idol Serena Williams in straight sets in the Australian Open semifinals on Thursday.
In a rematch of their 2018 U.S. Open final, when Osaka became Japan's first Grand Slam singles champion, the third-seeded Osaka was broken in the first game but recovered to defeat No. 10 seed Williams 6-3, 6-4 in front of a small crowd at Rod Laver Arena.
Osaka will face 22nd seed Jennifer Brady of the United States in the final. Brady reached her first Grand Slam final by downing Karolina Muchova 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 in the other semifinal.
"Honestly, for me it's always an honor to play her and I just didn't want to go out really bad, so I just wanted to try my best," Osaka said. "I was a little kid watching her play and just to be on the court playing against her for me is a dream."
Williams had been bidding to match Margaret Court's record of 24 Grand Slam titles. She broke down in tears before cutting her post-match news conference short.
"It was a big error day for me today," Williams said.
Asked if it was just a bad day at the office, she responded: "I don't know. I'm done," before leaving the room in tears.
Osaka struggled with her first serves at the start, but so did Williams as the Japanese came back to even the first set 2-2. Osaka won two break points and sent a forehand winner for her second break to go up 4-2 and held serve to take the set, amassing nine winners to Williams' four.
"I just had a lot of unforced errors in the first few games and I was just really nervous and scared at the beginning, and I sort of eased my way into it," she said. "For me the biggest thing is just having fun."
A crosscourt backhand winner gave Osaka a break to open the second set, and back-to-back aces in the next game saw her hold serve and cement her advantage.
Three double faults from Osaka threw her opponent a lifeline with a break, but the younger player won the next eight points to close it out. A double fault by Williams and three winners by Osaka resulted in a 40-0 service break. Osaka then held serve for the win.
The 23-year-old Osaka, winner of the 2019 Australian Open and 2020 U.S. Open, entered the match with a 2-1 record against the 39-year-old Williams. It was their second meeting at a grand slam.
With 23 career Grand Slam singles title, Williams is one shy of Australian Court's record. Williams' last Grand Slam championship came in Melbourne in 2017. She gave birth to her daughter in September of that year.
She paused while walking off as the crowd gave her a standing ovation, putting her hand on her heart and waving.
"The Aussie crowd is so amazing, so it was nice to see," Williams, sporting a "Queen" necklace, told reporters.
Williams was asked whether the gesture was meant as a final farewell to Melbourne Park, where she holds a record seven titles in the professional era.
Osaka will face a first-time finalist in Brady. They last met in the 2020 U.S. Open semifinals, when Osaka won in full sets en route to her third Grand Slam title. Osaka is 2-1 in her career against Brady.
"It (was) easily one of my most memorable matches I think, it was just super high quality throughout," Osaka recalled of the 7-6 (7-1), 3-6, 6-3 win. "For me it's not really surprising at all to see her in another semis or another finals…it's definitely going to be really tough."
Osaka has won all three Grand Slam finals she has reached so far and promised the extra motivation she has for the stage will drive her to another big performance.
"I have this mentality that people don't remember the runners-up," she said. "I mean you might, but the winner's name is the one that's engraved. So I think I fight the hardest in the finals, and I think that's where you sort of set yourself apart."
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