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Osaka to Face Brady in the Final of the 2021 Australian Open Tennis – But Was This Serena’s Last Stand?

By Alix Ramsay

Was it “adieu” or was it merely “au revoir”? We will find out in Paris in the spring. But Serena Williams left Melbourne Park in tears, soundly beaten by Naomi Osaka.

As she left the court, she paused. Thursday was the first time the fans had been allowed back to the stadium since last week and as they applauded, she stopped, put her hand on her heart and then gave one final wave. Then she was gone.

Serena Williams waves to the crowd after losing against Naomi Osaka of Japan in the Women’s singles semifinals match on Day 11 of the Australian Open. EPA-EFE/DEAN LEWINS

Her attempt to claim that 24th grand slam trophy had been brought to a shuddering 6-3, 6-4 halt in the semi-finals by the woman who had grown up idolising Williams and who, for two games, was as nervous as a kitten as she faced her in the Rod Laver Arena. But Osaka studied long and hard as she watched her idol all those years ago. Serena in her pomp simply would not allow anyone to bully her or intimidate her. The Serena of old grabbed a match by the throat and choked the life out of it.

So it was that Osaka lost the opening two games and then ran away with eight of the next nine. By that point she was a set and a break to the good. The more she pressed, the more Serena flapped and fluffed and the faster her error count rose.

Even when Osaka managed to throw her serve away with three double faults, so allowing her idol to level things up at 4-4, she just took a deep breath and won the next eight points. Perhaps, then, she has also been studying the men’s world No.1 because her ability to reset and refocus mid-match is Djokovic-like.

Naomi Osaka in action during her Women’s singles semifinals match against Serena Williams of the Australian Open Grand Slam. EPA-EFE/DEAN LEWINS

“It’s very intimidating to serve for the first game and see her on the other side of the net,” Osaka said. “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.

“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.

“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.”

Serena Williams hugs Naomi Osaka after losing the Women’s singles semifinals match on Day 11 of the Australian Open. EPA-EFE/DAVE HUNT

When Osaka does that, she is unstoppable. On Saturday, she will play her fourth grand slam final and, so far, she has yet to lose one. The thought that Jen Brady can beat her in this sort of form seems a little far fetched because the Osaka who won the Australian Open in 2019 is a very different player to the one who will be trying to do it again at the weekend.

Over the course of the past year, she has grown up. She is still polite and nice and not one to play the big “I am”, but, these days, she knows who she is and what she wants. She is more comfortable in the spotlight and she is more willing to reveal her fears. Well, she is only happy to reveal them to her inner circle – but that is all it takes.

“I think the thing that I’m most proud of is now mentally strong I’ve become,” she said. “I used to be really up and down. For me, I had a lot of doubts in myself.

Naomi Osaka reacts after defeating Serena Williams in the Women’s singles semifinals match on Day 11 of the Australian Open. EPA-EFE/DEAN

“But I think the quarantine process and seeing everything that’s going on in the world, for me it put a lot into perspective. I used to weigh my entire existence on if I won or lost a tennis match. That’s just now how I feel any more.

“I honestly think that it’s just opening myself up more to my team, having longer talks with Wim [Fissette] before I go out, expressing the nerves that I feel instead of bottling it all up and trying to deal with it by myself.

“I feel like just being secure in myself as a person and knowing that the people that I love will still love me, like my family won’t hate me because I lose a tennis match and stuff like that.”

As for Serena, she kept it brief. Her press conference lasted less than four minutes and was brought to an end when she was asked whether her salute to the crowd at the end was a final goodbye.

“If I ever say farewell, I wouldn’t tell anyone,” she replied, with her voicebeginning to crack.

When the same journalist moved on to the unforced errors (24 of them to 12 winners), Serena had had enough. She was in tears as she announced “I’m done” and got up and left. There was no malice or antagonism in this; she was simply in no state to talk to anyone about what had just happened.

It was clear that she had worked hard to be ready for the Open. She was fitter than she had looked in a long time; she was playing better than she had in a long time – and then she ran into someone who was doing what she used to be able to do 10 years ago.

Will she be back? Who knows. The fact remains that if she is fit and prepared, Serena is still a match for many of the women in the locker room. But as she heads towards her 40th birthday, it is winning major titles that matters; if she cannot do that anymore, will she want to keep playing?

Novak Djokovic had a few words of comfort and support after he eased his way into the final with a 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 win over Alsan Karatsev. Like Serena, he is chasing records whenever he steps on court so he knows how it feels when chances slip away.

“When you’re chasing big things that are related to the history of the sport, obviously it has a lot of weight, a lot of pressure. And regardless of the amount of years that you have played on the tour and the experience that you have, you still feel it on your shoulders.

“I can empathise with Serena and what she’s going through. She’s such an amazing champion that inspires both male and female athletes around the world in what she has been doing, I mean, still is doing in her age; it’s extraordinary.

“I’m sure she’s disappointed. I heard she was also emotional in the press conference. And, you know, regardless of all the success that she had, you know, I know that when you lose a big match you’re frustrated. You’re pissed off and you’re emotional. Of course, it’s completely understandable.

“But I think when you see a larger picture for her and everything that who she is, what she stands for on and off the court: she’s one of the greatest ever athletes, not just tennis players, there is no doubt.”

The greatest, though, is on her way home and her successor is through to the final. When asked on TV about her grand slam goals, Osaka was charmingly confident. “I like to keep my goals short term so right now, I’m nearest to five. So I’ll aim for five,” she said before adding, without a hint of a giggle: “Then I’ll think about 10 or 15.”

The Queen is in the departure lounge. Long live the Queen.