When Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka met at the 2018 US Open Final, Arthur Ashe Stadium fell into chaos.
Williams received three highly controversial Code violations – the last of which resulted in a game penalty that put Osaka 5-3 ahead in the second set. The crowd booed during the final Osaka game and trophy ceremony.
It was a painful moment for both players. Although Williams was disappointed to lose their second consecutive grand final, he also had to calm the storm and ask fans to stop the ridicule. Osaka, meanwhile, was unable to celebrate or enjoy their first Grand Slam win and tearfully apologized for the win.
Therefore, just moments after Williams had defeated Simona Halep in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open on Tuesday 6: 3, 6: 3, she was asked about her next opponent.
She praised Osaka, who she will meet in the semifinals on Thursday, and called her inspirational for her work on and off the pitch. She added, “I’ve been watching her and I’m sure she was watching me and I think this is a good opportunity for me to do my best.”
It was a brief, if not a glimpse, of how much the match meant to the often-watched Williams. The two have been inextricably linked since the 2018 US Open. From now on, until the game starts in Melbourne, there will no doubt be endless conversation about their meeting so far and speculation about how important it will be to both players.
But for Williams and Osaka, two champions who represent the past, present and future of women’s tennis, there is a mutual respect that goes well beyond a television talk and an appreciation for what the other has done and continues to do in the sport. Plus, both of them focus on bigger things – like winning.
“I’m not sure we will ever go all the way through what happened, but they both have enough motivation to win,” said ESPN analyst and 21-time major doubles champion Pam Shriver. “You don’t need anything extra.”
Serena Williams lost the US Open final to Naomi Osaka, and the two have been linked ever since. Mohammed Elshamy / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images
Both players are eager to play another major title. Williams has been aiming for her 24th record since returning from giving birth in 2018 and has played in four finals since then, including against Osaka in 2018, but she struggles with expectations in the greatest moments. Osaka has won three majors in their short career, including the US Open 2020 in September, and has regained form after a somewhat challenging stretch after their first two slam wins. If she won her fourth place, she would have the third most on tour among active players – just behind Williams and Serena’s sister Venus – and that would cement Osaka’s status as an obvious heir to the sport.
But Williams isn’t ready to hand over her crown just yet (note the glitzy “Queen” necklace she wore in Melbourne) as it was in vintage shape. She won her first three games in straight sets before taking on number 7 Aryna Sabalenka in the fourth. Williams overcame Sabalenka’s powerful punch and aggressive style to move forward, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4. And she showed no signs of fatigue against Halep on Tuesday. Although the match was less lopsided than the score suggests, Williams stayed in control most of the time.
“What I love about what I see of Serena now is her ability to win these long rallies in ways that she couldn’t last year or the year before,” said Shriver. “She will certainly never move like she was in her prime, but she’s moving so much better than she has since she returned from maternity leave. Some of what we’ve seen of her defending this tournament has been incredible.”
Osaka’s path to the semifinals was similar – she drove through her first three games before taking on two-time major champion Garbine Muguruza in the fourth. Osaka saved two match points before completing the comeback for a 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 win. But she had few problems with Su-Wei Hsieh in the quarters – she won 6: 2, 6: 2. Her game and her mental strength made her the betting favorite to win the title.
“Osaka is the player to beat in the entire tournament, no matter who she is playing,” said Shriver.
Williams and Osaka have played against each other once since meeting in New York, a largely straightforward affair in the quarter-finals of the 2019 Canadian Open. Williams won in straight sets and later admitted that she was more comfortable in the match than in the previous one.
“I knew your game a little better, so it’s a little easier,” she said after the game. “Overall, I’m just a little better. I know her game. I watch her a lot.”
For much of Williams’ career, she has been the indispensable player. But she’s lost some of her intimidation factor since she got back and in “What have you been doing for me lately?” In the world of women’s tennis, she is sometimes overshadowed by some of the younger female players who have won majors, including Ashleigh Barty, Sofia Kenin, Bianca Andreescu, Halep, and maybe mostly Osaka. Since the French Open in 2018, when Williams made her big comeback, no one has reached the quarter-finals, semi-finals or finals than Williams. But nobody has won more slam titles in this stretch than Osaka.
At 39 and 23, Williams and Osaka are on opposite sides of their careers. Osaka grew up with Serena and Venus Williams and has cited the sisters as inspiration to get started in the sport. As a child, she dreamed of having the chance to play it.
While both of them are now on the WTA Tour hunting the same trophies, Osaka still admires Williams. And she’s still watching them, as she frankly admitted after defeating Hsieh the previous Tuesday.
“I always watch Serena’s games anyway,” she said when asked if she would scout out her potential opponent in the night’s quarter-finals.
In addition to lucrative recommendations and magazine covers, Osaka has embarked on Williams’s path as an outspoken campaigner for gender equality. Osaka’s decision to boycott the Western & Southern Open after police shot Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, resulted in the tournament being suspended for a day.
During their championship run at the US Open, Osaka wore a series of seven masks, one for each game, to honor victims who have died as a result of racial injustice and police brutality. During the US Open, she credited Williams for paving the way for her to have a voice.
“To be honest, she’s like a living icon,” she said. “How, I wouldn’t be here without her.”
Serena Williams aims to make history by tying Margaret Court’s record of 24 major titles. AP
It remains to be decided whether there will be a crowd in the Rod Laver Arena due to the ongoing lockdown in Melbourne. It is slated to end at 11:59 p.m. Wednesday but that has yet to be confirmed by the local Victorian government. Both players played well in an empty stadium at the 2020 US Open, so Shriver doesn’t think this will be an important factor either.
“You’re used to it now,” she said. “And for Serena, I thought she played really well without the crowd. I think it’s better for her not to have any distractions. She has so much motivation and drive to turn 24 that they encourage themselves can and not I have to rely on the energy of the crowd for this. “
Fans or not, Thursday’s semi-finals will be a blockbuster match. And in the past, Williams and Osaka just focus on the future.
“I think we both had a closure,” Williams said on Tuesday. “And we reached out to each other. I definitely got in touch and … she’s a great competitor and she’s a cool cat …
“I have to keep going. That is obviously the goal. Obviously I have an incredible opponent to play so it would be nice to hopefully level my game up. I will have to.”