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Tennis

Naomi Osaka Is The One Who Booms

Naomi Osaka of Japan celebrates victory in her Women’s Singles Semifinals match against Serena Williams of the United States during day 11 of the 2021 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on February 18, 2021 in Melbourne, Australia.
Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

It didn’t really matter who was on the other side of the net. It so happened to be Serena Williams. When Naomi Osaka enters full bully-ball configuration, every opponent ends up looking roughly the same. They could waggle a racket in the general direction of the tennis ball as she snaps backhands crosscourt at 79 mph or hurls aces out wide at 117 mph, in the way that one could wave at a car passing by on the interstate while standing on the shoulder. Osaka spent the better part of Thursday’s Australian Open semifinal in an untouchable state, and Williams watched the ball skid by until it was over, 6-3, 6-4. If only as an exercise in empathy, everyone that good at this sport should experience what it’s like to be on the receiving end of their own old highlight reels.

The comparison is dull and obvious—Serena was the explicit “blueprint” for that career Naomi has built, as her dad Leonard Francois studied Richard Williams—but that doesn’t make it any less accurate. A serve that saves that much sweat, and the blunt trauma of Osaka’s baseline game, really only call to mind one other player, although that wasn’t evident at the start of the match. Osaka set out creakily, aborting ball tosses, dumping serves into the lower half of the net, and missing the court by whole feet from neutral positions. Six unforced errors across the first two games led her to lose both.

Meanwhile, Serena was mashing the ball on those few occasions that Osaka managed to put it into play. Looking as agile and dexterous as she has in years, she spent the last two rounds polishing off Aryna Sabalenka and Simona Halep, the tournament’s seventh seed and second seed. Seeding aside, per Tennis Abstract’s ELO, which accounts for quality of competition, Sabalenka and Halep were the the No. 3 and No. 2 players on tour heading into the Open. Factor all that into the Retirement Discourse that has coalesced around two related clips (one of a longer-than-usual goodbye to the fans, and another of a tearful exit from a press conference after a difficult loss). That’s the kind of condition Serena Williams is still in at age 39; that’s where she still stands in her sport. If she leaves tennis now, it will not be because she was “only” good enough to blitz the best players in the world en route to a major semifinal. It will be because she wants to do other stuff.

No player has won more matches at a major since the 2018 U.S. Open final where these two fatefully and chaotically met. Williams has gone 31-7 in that span; Osaka has gone 27-4. This is not a player left behind by the lurch of time and an unbeatable cohort of youths; she threatens to win any big event she chooses to play. Which is not to say Williams’s disappointments haven’t been severe—she lost her last four major finals—it’s just to note that she is still steadily putting herself in the rarefied position to even suffer those second-week disappointments.

This match, too, will get slotted next to those other tantalizing chances. After Osaka lost the first two games, she stabilized and sped through five straight, while Serena’s forehand disintegrated. “I could’ve been up 5-0, and I just made so many errors,” Williams said after the loss, which probably did not give enough due to the comets that flew across the net and prevented her from finding her timing. Osaka’s hard flat shots are misery on any hard court. On the slick courts and dead heat of this year’s Open, they are invisible. An early Osaka break in the second set allowed her to ferry a lead to its logical conclusion.

That all proceeded smoothly, but for the game at 4-3 in the second, when a patch of dubious serving by Osaka allowed Serena to break. All it takes is a two-minute gap in concentration for a sure path to a final to fall away. But this lapse could not have been more temporary. In the next game, Osaka broke back with as mean a sequence of points as she has ever played on a hard court: a backhand winner down the line to end a loopy 12-shot rally, a baffling crosscourt winner from a position where it should not have been possible, and a blistering forehand across the full diagonal of the court that Williams could only scoop back into play to await certain doom. Hope was stamped out just as quickly as it had flared up.

When the masses descend on a marquee match like this, they want profound takeaways. They want to see a hierarchy reordered. They want to see careers pronounced dead or alive. Serena Williams isn’t dead; she remains where she has been for years, among the best of the rest, and if anything this fresh success over top opponents bodes well for her future. Naomi Osaka is alive in all the usual ways: still undefeated after making the quarterfinal of a major, still the scariest thing on hard court, still closing in on major title number four.