Pre-tournament favourite Naomi Osaka will play dogged American Jennifer Brady in the Australian Open final after ending Serena Williams’ latest shot at tennis history at Melbourne Park.
The Japanese superstar defeated Williams 6-3 6-4 in 75 minutes to leave the American stranded one grand slam shy of Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 singles majors.
Brady then defied two weeks in hard quarantine last month to outlast Czech Karolina Muchova 6-4 3-6 6-4 in Thursday’s enthralling second semi-final.
Osaka and Williams were clashing for the first time at a grand slam since Osaka’s victory over the American in their explosive 2018 US Open final in New York.
And just as she did then, Osaka out-Serena’d Serena with her brutal back-court firepower in what could only be described as a heavyweight showdown between women’s tennis’ future and the past.
Still only 23 and already with three grand slams under belt, Osaka dominated the 39-year-old in every facet after a shaky start, admitting she’d been nervous taking on her idol once again on one of the sport’s biggest stages.
“I was a little kid watching her play and just to be on the court playing against her is a dream,” Osaka said.
“It’s like always a surreal moment, just to see her in real life, like close up, because I rarely see her.”
Seeking revenge for that bitter defeat, Williams looked to have made an early statement when she broke Osaka in the opening game of the match as the Japanese struggled badly with her ball toss.
But from 2-0 down, Osaka hit the go button, reeling off five successive games with a ferocious display of heavy hitting.
“I just hit a lot of unforced errors in the first few games and I was just, like, really nervous and scared in the beginning and then I sort of eased my way into it,” Osaka said.
The third seed’s only real wobble came when, with the finish line in sight, she coughed up three double-faults to gift Williams a break back when serving at 4-3 in the second set.
But she replied in championship fashion, not dropping another point in two games to take the match.
Seeking her fourth major, and second Open crown after reigning in Melbourne in 2019, Osaka will be a warm favourite against Brady.
The 25-year-old world No.24 seed will be contesting her maiden grand slam final after announcing herself on the big stage with a charge to last year’s US Open semi-finals.
Brady at times looked frazzled against Muchova, the shock quarter-final winner over world No.1 Ash Barty.
The crafty Czech rallied after dropping the opening set to level the match and gained an early break in the third.
But after looking like she was about to unravel, Brady regained her nerve in the deciding set to clinch victory on her fifth match point after a tense 18-point final game.
“I can’t feel my legs. My legs are shaking, my heart is racing. I don’t have words,” Brady said after the one hour 55 minute thriller on Rod Laver Arena.
“I was feeling a little strange today, super excited but at the same time I was pretty flat-footed.
“My legs felt fresh but at the same time they weren’t moving, they felt like they were stuck in mud.
“I didn’t really pick up my intensity until the beginning of the third set.”