[Live: Follow the Williams vs. Osaka match at the 2021 Australian Open]
MELBOURNE, Australia — Entertainment options are limited in a lockdown, but Naomi Osaka had concrete plans for her Tuesday night.
After she extended her winning streak to 19 matches by beating Hsieh Su-wei of Taiwan to advance to the semifinals of the Australian Open, Osaka said she planned to stay up to watch the evening match between Serena Williams and Simona Halep, though not necessarily to find out whom she would face next.
“I always watch Serena play,” Osaka said.
The Serena Williams she will face Thursday is a legend suddenly in sync with her distant past. The veteran competitor on display in a near-empty Rod Laver Arena bore little resemblance to the Williams that Osaka beat in straight sets in the 2018 United States Open final or to the one that Halep humbled in the 2019 Wimbledon final. If Osaka dreamed of facing Williams at her best here, she fell asleep happy.
Williams’s 6-3, 6-3 quarterfinal victory was not as surgical as the dismemberment that Halep administered to her in that meeting at Wimbledon, a performance that Billie Jean King described as “one of the most perfectly executed matches I’ve ever seen.”
On Tuesday, Williams put only 55 percent of her first serves in play, a much lower rate than she expects of herself. She finished with more unforced errors (33) than winners (24). But on the key points, Williams’s moxie and motor won the day.
With Halep serving at 3-3 in the second set, Williams won a 20-stroke rally to earn a break point, then secured the break on a 12-shot point. Two days after she was extended to three intense sets and more than two hours by Aryna Sabalenka, Williams, 39, was spry enough to outrun and outlast Halep, who is 10 years younger.
“I feel pretty good with that performance,” Williams said. “I feel like I needed to have a good performance obviously today, especially after my last match against her.”
The 2019 Wimbledon final was the third of four Grand Slam finals that Williams has played since she won the 2017 Australian Open to pull within one major title of equaling the career record held by Margaret Court.
She is one successful match from earning another shot at Court’s record, and to get there Williams has one more date on her revenge tour. After dispatching the second-ranked Halep, the third-ranked Osaka awaits Thursday, with top-ranked Ashleigh Barty looming as a potential championship opponent. The last time Williams faced a murderers’ row of that magnitude on her way to a title in a Grand Slam event was in 1999, when she beat the Nos. 1, 2 and 4 players to win the U.S. Open.
In the years that followed, as Williams became more and more famous for her rocket serve and guided-missile groundstrokes, she lost sight of the fact that before she was a champion, she was a grinder. The coronavirus pandemic, now in its second lap around the calendar, has given Williams, like so many others, ample time for reflection.
And what she realized, she said Tuesday, was this: “I’m good at rallying, and I have to embrace the things I’m good at. I’m good at playing power, I’m good at hitting a hundred balls. And that’s one thing that’s unique about me that I just need to kind of accept and embrace and just be good at both.”
Osaka was not alone in keeping a close watch on Williams’s match. No fans were allowed inside Rod Laver Arena because of a five-day lockdown imposed after the Australian authorities detected a cluster of coronavirus infections in the area. But Williams and Halep had a crowd of roughly five dozen spectators anyway, as people associated with the tournament slipped into seats to watch in person with the players’ entourages.
“I feel like everyone in the tournament watches her,” Osaka said, referring to Williams. “Like, whenever I go to the locker room or whatever, there’s always just people lounging around and stuff, watching her match.”
Since Williams last won a Grand Slam title, a lot of the attention in women’s tennis has shifted to Osaka. In 2020, she supplanted Williams as the highest-earning woman in sports on the strength of more than $30 million in off-court endorsements. Her rise led a reporter on the eve of this tournament to ask how she was dealing with being seen as the face of women’s tennis.
“As long as Serena’s here,” Osaka replied, “I think she’s the face of women’s tennis.”
Who is Williams to argue? She has worn a diamond-encrusted “QUEEN” necklace during all her matches.
Thursday’s meeting with Osaka will be Williams’s 40th Grand Slam semifinal. It will also be her first time squaring off against Osaka in a Grand Slam event since their 2018 final in New York, a match that turned turbulent when Williams argued with the chair umpire, who called three code-of-conduct violations against her. The incident turned the crowd against the umpire, and indirectly, Osaka, souring her moment of victory.
In the afterglow of her quarterfinal victory, Williams’s smile didn’t waver when she was asked about her relationship with Osaka.
“I think we both have had closure,” Williams said of the 2018 final. She added, “I think she’s a great competitor and a cool cat.”
Williams and Osaka might have squared off in another U.S. Open final last year if not for the heel injury that hampered Williams in her semifinal loss to Victoria Azarenka. Unlike Osaka, who skipped last fall’s rescheduled French Open because of a strained hamstring, Williams played at Roland Garros less than three weeks after the Open. She won her first match before pulling out of the tournament, a decision that proved providential.
When the start of the Australian Open was pushed back three weeks because of the pandemic, Williams had three open months on her calendar, a welcome block of time that she used to heal her injury and improve her conditioning.
According to Patrick Mouratoglou, who has been Williams’s coach since 2012, she rededicated herself to the unglamorous work of improving her fitness, with an emphasis on footwork and speed.
“It’s a lot of little details that make a big difference,” he said.
The daily conditioning grind she endured through November and December has allowed Williams to run down balls and extend rallies in February. While she is known for her attacking style, her best offense in her past two matches has been her defense.
“She’s moving better,” conceded Halep, adding: “It’s much easier for her to hit the balls. It’s tougher for the opponents to finish the point.”
Williams “has a really good game,” Halep said. Then she caught herself. Laughing, she said, “She always did.”