February 18, 2021
Naomi Osaka negotiated a nervous match against Serena Williams to reach the showpiece in Melbourne.
As she left the stage, Serena took a while to wave to the crowd, her other hand on her heart. It suggested farewell to this particular venue, where she began playing way back in 1998.
Asked to explain her gesture, Serena said. ‘The Aussie crowd are so amazing. If I ever say farewell I wouldn’t tell anyone.’
But it all seems to support what we have been saying for some time.
This is likely to be Serena’s final year on tour and you have one last chance to see her at Wimbledon 2021.
Serena must now know her best chance of winning that elusive 24th Slam lies at Wimbledon 2021 too.
It won’t be lost on Williams that Osaka still feels uncomfortable on clay and grass in particular.
Wimbledon 2021 will offer the legendary American a marvellous chance to equal Margaret Court’s record at last.
To do that, however, Serena should also accept that she just lost to herself more than she lost to Osaka. The pressure of impending history caused her to freeze in the big moments once more.
Williams is in the best physical shape she has achieved for many years. She has even added a brilliant defensive element to her game when it’s needed.
Now she must finally win the psychological battle that has become so debilitating at the business end of Grand Slams in recent years.
Asked about the reason behind all her unforced errors against Osaka, poor Serena just burst into tears. ‘I don’t know. I’m done,’ she said, walking out of her press conference.
But the answer is pretty obvious. That infernal statistic weighs her down. To be left one Grand Slam short of Margaret Court fills her with tension when she gets so close to parity.
It won’t help her mood to hear Osaka set her sights on similar totals of Grand Slam titles.
Naomi explained: ‘I have short-term and long-term goals. For me the nerves will always be there, no matter what final I play.’
If she wins this one, she will be close to her first big Grand Slam milestone. ‘The thing I’m closest to is five, then I’ll think about ten, fifteen and twenty,’ she said ominously, with remarkable confidence.
That self-belief wasn’t there at the start against Serena as the Japanese woman initially froze too. Williams had a break point to go 3-0 but missed her chance. After that she could barely do anything right.
Osaka hardly ever served well but still won comfortably, 6-3, 6-4. Indeed it was a particularly dreadful service game from Naomi that allowed Serena to level at 4-4 in the second before the 39-year-old’s game collapsed, perhaps forever in Australia.
What won the match for Osaka was a fantastic middle phase, during which she completely dominated with a series of fizzing ground-stroke winners.
If she can loosen up enough to do the same in the final, she will be Australian Open champion once more.
Not that America’s Jennifer Brady will make it easy for her.
She defeated Karolina Muchova 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 and there were impossibly dramatic scenes in the final game.
Brady sank to her knees in triumph and took in the taste of victory…only to discover she hadn’t won.
Jennifer’s shot had been called out just before her opponent netted.
With her mind scrambled, Brady fought to save break points and it took a fifth match point before she finally secured her passage to the showpiece.
‘My legs are shaking, my heart is racing, at one stage my legs weren’t moving and I felt like I was stuck in the mud,’ Brady said afterwards. ‘I’ll be nervous but super-excited for the final.’