Serena Williams faltered yet again in her quest for an elusive 24th Grand Slam crown as she went out in straight sets to Japanese World Number 3 Naomi Osaka in the first semifinal of the Australian Open on Thursday.
However, the 39-year-old showed that she still has the skills to match the younger crop as she pulled out an incredible defensive game to thwart the Japanese in the early exchanges.
Keen to pull away with an early advantage in the blockbuster last-four clash, Serena scored a breakpoint off Osaka’s serve in the opening game and converted it to go 1-0 up.
Serena Williams ran out of steam against rampant Naomi Osaka
The 39-year-old American then played out a clinical service game to double her lead going into the third game. The fact that Serena was desperate to lay an early marker in the game was evident from the 7 straight winning points that she reeled off against her opponent’s 3.
The 23-time Grand Slam winner lost to the Japanese World Number 3 the only time they had met before in a Grand Slam – the 2018 US Open final and the American seemed to have come out with a clear game plan to set her opponent back with an aggressive brand.
Continuing with her early momentum, Serena reeled off three sumptuous off Osaka’s serve in the third game to take it to deuce. However, the Japanese came back well to close it out in her favor.
The reigning US Open champion seemed to be warming to the task as she put more heat on her serve and even sent down her first ace to go level with the American on that score.
Osaka tried to put pressure on the Serena serve in the next game, taking it to deuce and even saving a game point. She then scored a breakpoint and converted it to go level with the World Number 11 at 2-2.
Serena won two quick points off her opponent’s serve in the next game and even had a breakpoint, but Osaka managed to save it and come away with a service hold.
Osaka pressed the Serena serve again in the sixth game, pulling away to 0-40 before converting her second straight breakpoint to go 4-2 clear in the opening set.
However, amid the sumptuous exchanges between two of the game’s biggest rivals, what stood out was how Serena seemed to come up with a response every time the Japanese tried to push her to a corner. That was vintage stuff and one that got the crowd up on its feet.
How Naomi Osaka squeezed Serena Williams out of the contest
The Japanese then played out a confident service hold to extend her lead to 5-2. It was going to be a tall order for the American to bring herself back into the opening set but she did manage to reduce the arrears to 5-3 with a confident service hold.
Serving for the first set, Osaka scored two winners to go 30-0 up and extended her lead to 40-15 before closing it out with a 6-3 win. Now, the pressure was clearly on Serena to fight her way into contention.
It was first time this Australian Open that the 39-year-old had dropped the opening set.
With the momentum well and truly with her, the Japanese scored her third breakpoint off the American in the opening game of the second set and converted it to 1-0 up.
It was 3/3 for Osaka in terms of breakpoint conversion, showing how she had raised her game after conceding an early break in the first set. With an early break out of the way, she only had to trust her powerful service game to go ever closer to sealing a prized berth in the Australian Open final.
Nailing her serves in the next game, the Japanese pulled away to a 2-0 lead. However, the American managed a service hold in the next, opening her account in the second set.
Naomi Osaka didn’t let advantage slip against Serena Williams
However, the relentless Osaka wasn’t about to let slip her advantage as she went 3-1 up despite the American trying to put the squeeze on her serve.
There were tense faces in the Serena camp, including husband Alexis Ohanian, as the match seemed to slipping away rather quickly.
The Japanese pressed Serena’s serve again in the fifth game but the American managed to hold, reducing the deficit to 2-3.
With another flawless service hold, Osaka doubled her lead to 4-2 and it seemed all over for the 39-year-old. Though the American stayed in the contest with another service hold, it seemed all over bar the shouting.
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However, just when it appeared to be a lost cause, Serena managed to break back, much against the run of play, bringing herself to level at 4-4.
However, the Japanese seized the advantage back breaking Serena in the next to go 5-4 up on serve. Serving for the match, she played out a flawless game to prolong Serena’s agonizing quest for a 24th Slam.