Naomi Osaka yesterday said she was mentally stronger than ever after emphatically ending Serena Williams’ latest bid for a record-equaling 24th Grand Slam crown.
The Japanese third seed swept past the American veteran 6-3, 6-4 to reach the Australian Open final in front of thousands of fans after Melbourne lifted a snap five-day lockdown.
She faces Jennifer Brady tomorrow for a fourth Slam title after the American beat Czech Karolina Muchova 6-4, 3-6, 6-4.
“I think for me, match experience definitely helped me out,” said Osaka, who reeled off five games in a row in the opening set after going 2-0 down.
“There was a point when I got broken today ... in my head I had all these thoughts about how she’s the best server, I’m probably not going to be able to break her,” she said.
“Then I told myself to erase those thoughts, and I was telling myself I don’t care because I can only play one point at a time and I’m going to try my best to play every point as well as I can,” she added.
“For me, I think the thing that I’m most proud of is how mentally strong I’ve become,” said Osaka, whose previous Grand Slam successes came at Flushing Meadows in 2018 and last year, and Melbourne in 2019.
The victory left Williams, who won her last major in Melbourne in 2017, stranded on 23 Grand Slam titles, as she strives to match Margaret Court’s all-time record.
Since winning while pregnant in Australia four years ago, Williams has lost four Slam finals, including the controversial and heated 2018 US Open decider against Osaka.
“The difference today was errors. I made so many errors,” said the American veteran, who broke down in tears and walked out of a post-match news conference.
While Osaka held a 2-1 head-to-head advantage going into the blockbuster clash, 39-year-old Williams had a huge edge on big-match experience.
Ahead of the showdown, she had won all eight of her previous semi-finals at Melbourne Park, stretching back 18 years to when she beat Kim Clijsters on her way to her first title in Australia.
Her first-ever Grand Slam semi, against Lindsay Davenport at the 1999 US Open, was played when Osaka was just one.
Williams worked hard on her fitness during the off-season and quickly asserted herself, breaking Osaka straight away with the Japanese sensation having issues with the sun and ball toss.
She consolidated by holding serve, with Osaka guilty of five unforced errors in the opening two games.
Osaka said before the match that she still felt intimidated seeing Williams on the other side of the net, but her early nerves soon settled.
She saved a break point in the next game and got off the mark with an ace, then broke back to level the scores at 2-2 when Williams sent a forehand long.
Well and truly in her groove, with her forehand doing most of the damage, Osaka won five games in a row, and the set, to leave Williams stunned.
She broke again on Williams’ opening serve of the second set, with the American screaming: “Make a shot, make a shot.”
With the crowd roaring her on, Williams stayed in touch, but Osaka broke again and calmly served out for victory.
Later in the first men’s singles semi-final, world No. 1 Novak Djokovic crushed Russian qualifier Aslan Karatsev 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 to advance to Sunday’s final.
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