Naomi Osaka shook off a slow start to beat Serena Williams in the Australian Open semifinals in straight sets (6–3, 6–4) on Thursday in Melbourne. The world's No. 3-ranked player now has a chance to win her fourth Grand Slam title at age 23.
Williams, meanwhile, absorbed her first loss in this tournament's semifinal round (falling to 8–1 all-time) and failed in another chance to tie Margaret Court's record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles.
Here are three thoughts on the match, which lasted an hour and 15 minutes and felt even shorter.
Is the 24th Grand Slam out of reach?
For the last 20 years, you doubted Serena at your own peril. So you can't say this was her last chance at No. 24. But this was her last best chance.
So much was lining up for her; the event was three weeks later than scheduled, which gave her a few extra weeks to deal with niggling injuries. The lack of a crowd probably worked to her benefit, even though they were behind her as the end drew near. To her credit, she improved her mobility at age 39—this is the best she's moved post-motherhood. But this will be a disappointment. You start to think: If not now, when?
She'll still be 39 at Wimbledon. But now it's four-plus years since her last major. You can see Osaka is 16 years younger than she is. Eventually, Michael Jordan couldn't dunk the way he used to. This is time doing its thing. Tom Brady's last pass as a Patriot was a pick-six. Serena's 39, but she's still beating top-three players and getting to these latter rounds. There's definitely reason for disappointment, but hope, too.
Serena's forehand fails her
The errors are what will disappoint her. She had a 2-0 lead in the first set, her opponent was nervous. Then Osaka won six of seven to win the set.
Osaka made Serena go for more margin than other players. Serena's getting a taste of what it was like to face her for so many years, with that unstoppable serve and shotmaking. Serena made too many errors, forced and unforced, against such a good player (16 unforced in the first set alone). That's what will sting; sometimes your opponent plays too well. In this case, Serena was as much at fault.
Osaka is a superstar
Osaka is a fascinating character, full of humility and respect. She has this self-deprecating nature. But once the ball is in play, it's like fava beans and Chianti. She's just a killer.
She's completely contestant with her personality in that she'd want to be respectful to Serena so much that she wouldn't want to look at her and gave her 20 feet of space during the changeover. Then once play starts, the ball's getting by her at 120 miles per hour.
It's obviously a momentous match for Serena. It's history, she's four sets from the record. But the flip side is seeing the emergence of Osaka. She's becoming the new Serena. She's one match away from fourth major and she's just 23 years old. She's now 11–0 once she reaches the quarterfinals of a major. She's an accelerating talent, and in the final she'll face an opponent who's ranked outside the top 20. So, anything can happen, but this may as well have been the final.
If we're seeing the decline of Serena, we're also seeing the ascent of a new star in Osaka.