Serena Williams’ quest to beat Margaret Court’s grand slam record remains out of reach after the American great fell to Japanese wunderkind Naomi Osaka in the semi-finals of the Australian Open.
The 23-time major champion sprinted out of the gates to a two-game advantage but the Japanese third seed, billed as her heir apparent, showed mettle and composure under pressure en route to a 6-3 6-4 victory.
The task of winning an elusive major brought Williams, respected by many as the greatest women’s player of all time, to tears in her post-match press conference.
When asked whether a poignant post-match moment, with her hand placed on her heart walking off Rod Laver Arena, was a message that this was her last Australian Open, she said: “I don’t know”.
“If I ever say farewell, I wouldn’t tell anyone,” Williams said.
And then when asked if it was a bad day in the office, the American broke down, saying: “I don’t know. I’m done”, abruptly ending the press conference.
Williams displayed arguably her best athleticism and defence since returning from maternity leave when she comfortably dispatched Simona Halep in the quarter-finals and her three-set struggle against fellow hard-hitter Aryna Sabalenka.
And following on from those performances, she ran out with the early lead.
In their first grand slam meeting since the 2018 US Open final – overshadowed by a blow-up between Williams and the umpire – it was the American who settled early, getting the better of her younger opponent in scorching backcourt rallies.
And Osaka was troubled early by waywardness on serve. A 36 per cent first-serve percentage would plague her by the end of the match.
But she recovered quickly as nervy play gave way to stinging shots ripped from hip and shoulder height, becoming the aggressor from the back of the court as her heavy forehand sent Williams running backwards.
Despite her serving yips, Williams’ inability to pounce on the second-serve gifts delivered her way on break points proved immensely costly as the match wore on, and some excellent backhands from Osaka, capped off with a savage forehand, handed her a set-winning break.
With confidence emanating from the defending US Open champion, Williams then became more animated, attempting to bring the crowd in as the third player with cries of “C’mon!” and “Make the court!” – a reference to making four times more unforced errors than winners in the opening set.
But Osaka ran ahead with a break in the second set as she showed the form that pushed her to the title in 2019. Williams was clubbing 197 km/h aces, but the shanks and mishits kept coming.
Osaka provided a small opening for Williams in her fourth service game, sending down three double faults amid an unorthodox serve and volley to level the set.
After that minor blip, Osaka steered the ship back in the right direction, winning eight unanswered points to close out the match (a near-replica of her 22-point run without an unforced error after facing match points against Garbine Muguruza in the fourth round).
Osaka, who will feature in her second Melbourne final in three years on Saturday, said she started to “ease into the match” after six errors piled up on her racquet in the first four games.
Osaka will head into the final as the odds-on favourite, having won each of her last three grand slam finals, and will come up against American Jennifer Brady.
Brady wins after an epic marathon final game
The world no.22 had to overcome a monumental challenge thrown down by Ash Barty’s conqueror Karolina Muchova, and a 12-minute marathon in the final game, to seal a stirring 6-4 3-6 6-4 win.
Brady came within games of reaching a maiden grand slam final last year in a three-set thriller against Osaka in New York and will look to avenge that loss in Saturday’s final.
But it was a tense final game that threatened to derail her performance as the American secured her first two match points with a spellbinding angled forehand.
The American thought she had converted her second match point and fell to her haunches, only for the electronic line calling system to declare her ball was only 7 millimetres out.
Muchova praised what she thought was divine intervention and then manufactured a couple of break point chances to draw the final set level as Brady struggled to regroup.
Some tightness on return, however, kept Brady in the game.
The Czech continued to play without fear, striking a gutsy backhand return to save another match point before a bold move to the net created a third break point opportunity.
But that would be her last, as the American swung truly with her heavily topspun shots from the baseline and, this time, could collapse to the ground in sheer jubilation.
“I can’t feel my legs. My legs are shaking, my heart is racing. I’m – I don’t have words,” Brady said after her epic triumph.
“I was feeling a little strange today. Was super excited, but at the same time pretty flat-footed.
“My legs felt fresh, but I felt like I was stuck in mud. I didn’t really pick up, you know, my intensity till the beginning of the third set.
“I’m obviously pretty excited to be in the final. It’s an incredible achievement. I think it will be a really tough match. Obviously (Osaka) has won a few Grand Slams. I think it’ll be a really good match.”