Then there were tears. A prominent topic of discussion in Serena Williams’ post-match press conference was the crucial unforced errors she committed during her straight-sets loss to Naomi Osaka. It’s not that the veteran 39-year-old hasn’t faced tough losses before, nor the questions that follow such matches, in Grand Slams or on the WTA Tour. But what perhaps hurt more about this 6-3, 6-4 loss in the Australian Open semi-final is that it prolongs her search for an all-time record equalling 24th Grand Slam title.
“I don’t know,” she said, tearing up, adding “I’m done,” and then exited the conference.
— Tennis Channel (@TennisChannel) February 18, 2021
As the tournament progressed and her performances started to improve, echoes had started to grow that this might be the event where the 10th seed would win that elusive 24th Slam. In a way, it seemed like it was always meant to happen in Australia. For it was here, at the Rod Laver Arena in 2017 when she broke Steffi Graf’s Open Era tally of 22 major wins.
At the same time though, on the other side of the net she was coming up against a certain third seed Naomi Osaka. The 23-year-old, often dubbed the ‘Next Serena,’ is a power-hitter who modelled her game on her idol. She’s already a three-time Grand Slam champion in her own right (beating Williams in the final of the US Open in 2018 for her first title), and along with Simona Halep, is arguably the most consistent women’s singles player at the Grand Slam stage in the past five years.
And coming into the semi-final on Thursday morning, she had been in equally devastating form. She also had a tremendous record going for her – on the three occasions she’s reached a Grand Slam quarterfinal, she’s gone on to win it.
But in the semi-final, it wouldn’t just come down to Williams’ unforced errors that decided the match.
🚨 OSAKA ADVANCES 🚨
— ESPN (@espn) February 18, 2021
Osaka’s wavering serve
The young Japanese struggled to register many first serves in the first set. In all, she’d manage just 12 from 33 attempts at an unenviable rate of 33 percent. It was a dangerous day to falter on the first serve, especially since Williams, in her previous match against Halep, had demolished the Romanian’s second serve.
The American continued that trend, breaking Osaka in the opening game of the match.
There was a slight improvement in the stats in the second set, 15 from 27 first serves in (56 percent). But in the eight game of the second set, Osaka, who had been leading in the set till then, dropped serve.
Serving up at 4-3, in a game that lasted six points, Osaka managed to get in just one first serve, and conceded three points through a double fault – including the break point for Williams.
Her performance took an upswing when it mattered though. She got in all four first serves when she served for the match – winning it without dropping a point.
— Billy Heyen (@BillyHeyen) February 18, 2021
The groundstroke battle
Former men’s World No 21 Taylor Dent had once in commentary stated: “First serves are to close points. Second serves are to start points.”
With Osaka’s first serves going in and out, she needed to rely on her groundstrokes to bail her out. And the quality of her shots did just that.
Osaka powered back shots Williams would cannon at her, sometimes with interest. On more than one occasion she would strike a backhand cross court winner at an inconceivable angle leaving 2011 US Open champion Samantha Stosur asking in commentary: “How did she do that?”
One of those shots came when Osaka broke Williams to go up 5-4 in the second set.
In all, Osaka would strike 20 winners to 21 unforced errors.
Meanwhile Williams had 24 unforced errors to just 12 winners – she had no forehand winners in the first set.
“The difference today was errors,” Williams said after the match. “I made so many errors today. Honestly, it was opportunities where I could have won. I could have been up 5-love. I just made so many errors.”
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) February 18, 2021
Anticipating Williams’ serve
Despite owning a big serve, Williams managed just three aces – a credit to Osaka’s anticipation.
Jim Courier even asked Osaka about it after the match.
“I was just guessing,” came the reply. “It’s either going this way or that way, I just have to put my foot somewhere.”
A secret it may remain, as to how Osaka was ready to move in the right direction every time Williams served. But then again, she’s grown up watching her idol, and claims she likes to watch Williams play whenever possible. Subconsciously perhaps, she just knew where to be, and how to make the return that the American would struggle to find a reply for.