A wise teaching pro once said, “Sometimes all those tactics mean nothing. Sometimes it just comes down to this: nerves and serves.”
Those two rhyming factors played a major role in Naomi Osaka’s 6-3, 6-4 semifinal win over Serena Williams. This might well have been inevitable given the occasion and the strong stylistic similarity between these two, including the fact that each can return serve with exceptional power and precision. Another layer of tension is that Williams has long been Osaka’s idol, a player she admires for many qualities and accomplishments—23 major singles titles and, quite relevant for today’s match, 8-0 in Australian Open semis.
Early on, Osaka appeared to be competing versus Williams’ resume more than addressing the tennis ball. Plagued by sluggish movement and a wandering service toss, Osaka dropped the opening game of the match.
“Yeah, I was definitely really nervous,” said Osaka. “It's very intimidating to serve for the first game and see her on the other side of the net.”
Williams, meanwhile, was focused and crisp. Serving at 1-0, she opened with a favorite tactic—a wide slice serve that proved untouchable. Aided by the improved movement she’d shown the entire tournament, Williams held at 15.
And when Osaka double-faulted at 0-2, 30-30, the teaching pro’s insight became exceptionally relevant. But at that stage, said Osaka, “I was just telling myself to control what I can control and try to play within myself instead of thinking about what she would do or anything like that.”
Then came an increasingly familiar Osaka pattern, arguably the most important skill she has learned from studying Williams. Like Williams, Osaka has become superb at something hard to teach, but essential to learn: conclusively seizing control of the match. It happened at the start of Osaka’s quarterfinal versus Hsieh Su-wei. It happened at the end of her tight round of 16 battle against Garbine Muguruza. It happened in the early part of the second set of last year’s US Open final as she struggled versus Victoria Azarenka.
On this occasion, holding a point for a double break to go ahead 3-0, Williams hit a forehand long. Osaka held. In the next game, Williams went up 40-15—two points for 3-1—but by then Osaka was beginning to move much better. She captured Williams’ serve, fought off a break point in the next game and soon enough was in command of the set, at 5-3 serving it out at 15.
Osaka’s momentum continued in the second set. A backhand winner capped off a 10-ball rally to break Williams in the opening game. Serving at 3-2, love-15, Osaka hit four fantastic first serves to put herself two games away from a second Australian Open final.
But as the world has seen for more than 20 years, being down a set and 2-4 means nothing to Serena Williams. She held easily to stay within striking distance.
Now it was time again for nerves. Osaka went down love-40, serving two double-faults. Another at 30-40 made it 4-all.
This was the stage when Williams had so often kicked her unsurpassed momentum management skills into high gear. Instead, Osaka was the one who reasserted herself, breaking at love, her path aided by three backhand winners and, at love-30, a Williams double-fault.
There was no hesitation at 5-4. Osaka served it out at love, the final shot a netted Williams backhand. Over the course of the 75-minute match, Osaka won 23 of 27 points when she got her first serve in, including six aces—and also, eight double-faults.
“I felt like I was hitting well. I was hitting well this whole tournament,” said Williams. “Even the first couple games I played well. Even then I had so many opportunities.”
Later in the press conference, Williams was asked about her walk from the court following the match, an exit accompanied by a standing ovation and the great champion putting her hand on heart. Was this Williams’ final Australian Open? “I don’t know,” she said. “If I ever say farewell, I wouldn’t tell anyone.” Williams gave her answer with a smile.
But on the next question, a match-related query about unforced errors, Williams said, “I don’t know. I’m done.” She began to tear up and then left the room. “I want her to play forever,” said Osaka. “That’s the little kid in me.”
That was then; young Naomi, looking up to Serena. This is now, Osaka in her fourth Grand Slam singles final. Her opponent will be Jennifer Brady, a rematch of their first-rate 2020 US Open semifinal, won by Osaka, 7-6 (1), 3-6, 6-3. “It’s easily one of my most memorable matches,” said Osaka. “I think it was just super high quality throughout.” Here’s hoping this one in Melbourne will be just as good.