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Osaka ends Williams bid for 24th Grand Slam title

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Djokovic keeps perfect record

MELBOURNE, Australia, Feb 18, (AP): As Serena Williams walked off the court after her latest so-close-yet-so-far bid for a 24th Grand Slam title ended with a loss to Naomi Osaka at the Australian Open, the 39-yearold American paused and put her hand on her chest while thousands of spectators rose to applaud.

Japan’s Naomi Osaka waves as she leaves Rod Laver Arena after defeating United States’ Serena Williams in their semifinal match at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, on Feb 18, 2021.(Photo: AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)

Was this, Williams was asked at a news conference after the 6-3, 6-4 semifinal defeat, her way of saying goodbye? “If I ever say farewell,” she replied with a smile, “I wouldn’t tell anyone.” On Saturday, at 7:30 p.m. local time (3:30 a.m. EST), Osaka will meet first-time Grand Slam finalist Jennifer Brady of the United States for the championship.

The 22nd-seeded Brady, who is from Pennsylvania and played college tennis at UCLA, prevailed in an epic, 18-point last game to edge No. 25 Karolina Muchova 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 in the semifinals. Brady dropped to her back at the baseline after saving a trio of break points, then converting her fifth match point when Muchova sent a forehand long.

“My legs are shaking,” Brady said. “My heart is racing.” She lost to Osaka in a three-set thriller in the U.S. Open semifinals last September. “Everyone’s just really excited whenever they play their first final,” Osaka noted about what awaits Brady, “but they’re also really nervous.” Williams was hoping to get to her 34th Grand Slam final but, once again, couldn’t quite get the job done in order to add one more Grand Slam trophy to her collection of 23 and equal Margaret Court for the most in tennis history.

Osaka, who also beat Williams in the chaotic 2018 U.S. Open final that concluded with the crowd booing and both women in tears, reached her fourth major title match and stretched her winning streak to 20 matches by claiming the last eight points.

The No. 3-seeded Osaka’s Grand Slam collection also includes last year’s U.S. Open and the 2019 Australian Open and she is, without a doubt, the most dangerous hard-court player in the women’s game at the moment. That used to be Williams, of course. But she was off-target too much in this contest. Her forehand, in particular, went awry, with no fewer than 10 unforced errors off that side in the first set alone.

Williams’ frustration was made plain early in the second set, when she leaned over and screamed, “Make a shot! Make a shot!” After collecting her professional era-record 23rd Slam singles trophy at Melbourne Park while pregnant in 2017, Williams has reached four major finals and lost them all. She’s also now lost in the semifinals twice in the past three majors. Novak Djokovic had a perfect record in Australian Open semifinals, and he was playing almost flawless tennis to protect it.

It didn’t matter that across the net was Aslan Karatsev, a 114th-ranked, 27-year-old Russian who had come through qualifying to make his debut in a Grand Slam tournament after nine failed attempts. Djokovic made only one unforced error in more than 50 minutes.

It was tight for the first seven games – before Djokovic reeled off eight straight points to win the first set – and again when Karatsev went on an all-ornothing roll late in the second set. Sensing a shift in support for the underdog – there was a loud, vocal crowd at Rod Laver Arena after a five-day span when fans were barred during a local COVID-19 outbreak – Djokovic moved up a gear and finished off his opponent 6-3, 6-4, 6-2. He’s now 9-0 in semifinals at the season-opening major, and one win from a ninth Australian title. Djokovic will have a day off Friday when No. 4 Daniil Medvedev and No. 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas, who is coming off a five-set win over Rafael Nadal, meet in the other semifinal. He said he’d have a rest and get the popcorn ready to watch and see who he gets to face in Sunday’s final.

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