Serena Williams’s quest for a record equalling 24th grand slam continues after the American veteran lost her Australian Open semi-final in straight sets to Naomi Osaka. The third seeded Japanese is now the overwhelming favourite to collect her fourth major title, and second at Melbourne Park, on Saturday night.
Defeat clearly stung the 39-year-old, who left her brief post-match press conference overwhelmed. Asked to explain how she’d had such a bad day at the office, she replied, “I don’t know.” Then, choking back tears, added, “I’m done,” and exited stage right.
This was a pairing fit for a grand slam decider, nevermind a semi, but the quality on paper never materialised on court. This was the fourth meeting between these two modern greats, all of which have failed to live up to expectations.
At the end of an error-strewn first set both players were serving below 50% and both had struck more unforced errors than winners – Williams fourfold. Remarkably, the seven-time champion had a stats sheet featuring no winners but 10 unforced errors on her forehand side. “The difference today was errors,” Williams later admitted. “It was a big error day for me.”
This panoply of mistakes contributed to a staccato rhythm with only one rally extending beyond eight strokes. The action was a series of false starts without a race ever breaking out. The Flo-Jo inspired catsuit proved ultimately in vain.
The absence of a vocal crowd did not help. Despite Melbourne emerging from its snap five-day lockdown on Thursday, Rod Laver Arena was barely one quarter full.
Outside the venue it was picture perfect. The temperature was around 30C but kept in check by a gentle breeze that rustled the leaves of the stately gum trees beside Court 5. In Garden Square spectators lounged in front of a puttering fountain. There was a relaxed holiday mood around the precinct, perhaps it spilled over onto centre court?
In losing the opening two games of the match Osaka looked twitchy. Williams had already unleashed the kind of ferocious return winner that knocked Simona Halep off her stride in the quarter-finals, but it proved a false dawn. The third game of a match is too early to be a turning point, but at 30-30 Osaka double-faulted after a poor ball toss. She responded in sparkling fashion, opening her shoulders, shrugging off her anxieties and hitting her way to the next three points, sparking a run of five consecutive games.
“It’s always an honour playing her,” Osaka said afterwards about Williams. “I didn’t want to go out without trying my best.” She tried her best. She didn’t go out.
Williams is no stranger to boom and bust tennis, but the boom was largely absent, with mishits ending rallies much sooner than expected. Osaka is not the kind of player such generosity can be extended to, not in this run of form.
This semi-final victory was Osaka’s 20th win in succession. She has not lost anywhere to anyone since February 2020, a stretch that includes lifting the US Open title. So when Williams broke back to level the second set at 4-4 it came as little surprise to see the 23-year-old respond with a break to love. Beneath the winsome demeanour lies a warrior.
Osaka has now passed the fourth round at a slam on four occasions, the three prior to this she departed the event the champion. It would be a major surprise if her name was not once again engraved onto the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup.
Inevitably the post mortem will lead to soul searching from the Williams camp. Despite being in the best form and fitness for four years, that elusive 24th slam remains tantalisingly unattainable. What is clear is she is no longer an irresistible force, winning only two major titles from her past 12 visits to a semi-final, in comparison to a success rate of 21 from 28 before that.
Attention now turns to Wimbledon (even the most optimistic Williams fan can hold out little hope at Roland Garros) and another shot at the holy grail. Approaching 40 the window is closing on a moment of history that once appeared a formality.
But even if Williams does not succeed in scaling the highest of peaks, her contribution to her sport remains extraordinary, and her legacy long-lasting. She need only look across the net for validation. “I was a little kid watching her play,” Osaka said, “and just to be on the court playing against her for me is a dream.”