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Serena v Osaka: Power-hitters clash in blockbuster Australian Open semifinal

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When the Australian Open draw was made on February 5, the second half of the women’s singles draw attracted intrigue. And as the matches came and went, and as Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams went about their business dominating the tennis court, it was clear that it was not going to be a matter of ‘if,’ but rather ‘when’ the two titans of women’s tennis meet in the semi-final.

Sure there was the prospect of World No 2 Simona Halep – a title contender in her own right – disrupting the narrative by defeating Williams in the quarterfinal – you could argue that it was an ‘upset’ if the Romanian did win that match.

But certainly it would have denied another thrilling chapter in this most respectful rivalry between a legend and an apprentice once dubbed the ‘Next Serena’; the two most recognisable tennis players on the planet today.

“If it happens, then I’m sure a lot of people will be excited,” Osaka had said before Williams played Halep on Tuesday.

And when Williams took to Rod Laver Arena and beat Halep in what was, by her own admission, the best match she played so far in this tournament. It guaranteed that the fourth clash between Williams and Osaka – the second ever at a Grand Slam (the first was when Osaka won the US Open title in 2018) – came at a time when both have hit their stride.

The only disappointment for fans is that they will not get the final that they had hoped to see, but they’ll get a semi-final they wanted when the draw was made.

Heavy hitters

In most respects, both their games are similar. The 39-year-old Williams has long been one of the most powerful players on tour. She has a big serve and equally big groundstrokes that complement her all-round attacking game that has seen her win an Open Era record 23 Grand Slam singles titles.

Osaka meanwhile, grew up modelling her own skill-set based on the player she has idolised from an early age.

So far both have won 79 per cent points on their first serves. And the warm Melbourne conditions expected on Thursday, aided by the fast Australian Open courts – will simply propel the hard-hitting duo.

Osaka leads 2-1 head-to-head

The first time they met was in the first round of the 2018 Miami Open. Williams was playing in only her second tournament since returning to the tour after giving birth to a baby girl. Osaka won that tie 6-3, 6-2 against a clearly rusty American.

They met again, six months later in the controversial US Open final, which Osaka again won in straight sets.

Williams pulled one back in Toronto in 2019, winning 6-3, 6-4.

Osaka unbeaten after reaching quarterfinals at majors

So far, the 23-year-old Japanese player has reached the quarterfinal of a Grand Slam thrice – at the 2018 US Open, 2019 Australian Open and 2020 US Open. She went on to win the title on each occasion.

She’ll hope to continue in that vein to earn her fourth title, but she has never faced a Serena operating at such a high-level.

Williams chasing her 24th

For all her achievements and historic successes, Williams has now entered a fourth year in her pursuit of Margaret Court’s all-time record of most Grand Slam singles titles.

Williams overtook Steffi Graf’s Open Era record of 22 major wins when she won the 2017 Australian Open title – beating elder sister Venus in the final.

She went on maternity leave after that and returned to the tour over a year later. Her hunger for the elusive 24th Slam hasn’t diminished, and she’s been close to achieving it four times.

In 2018, she reached the Wimbledon and US Open finals, losing to Angelique Kerber and Osaka respectively. A year later, she reached the final of the same majors, losing to Halep (Wimbledon) and Bianca Andreescu (US Open).

Now she’s gunning for a fifth final.

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