The stage is set for a blockbuster Australian Open semifinal on Wednesday night: 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams against three-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka.
At 39-years-old, the No. 10th-seeded Williams will continue her chase towards history. If she advances to the finals and wins, it would be her record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title. However, since winning the Australian Open in 2017 (while two months pregnant with her daughter Olympia), Williams has advanced to four Grand Slam finals and lost them all.
One of those losses came against Osaka in the 2018 US Open final, a match in which Williams received three code violations, including a game penalty, in the final set. At last year's US Open, Williams fell in the semifinal to Victoria Azarenka in three sets.
Osaka, 23, is the No. 3 seed for this year's Australian Open. Her three Grand Slam titles came in the 2018 US Open (over Williams), the 2019 Australian Open (over Petra Kvitova) and the 2020 US Open (over Azarenka). Entering Wednesday night's semifinal, Osaka is riding a 19-match win streak dating back to last February. With her quarterfinal victory over Hsieh Su-wei in Melbourne this month, Osaka owns a perfect 10-0 record in quarterfinals or later at Grand Slams.
Every time Osaka has reached the semifinals at a Grand Slam, she has gone on to win the tournament. Williams is 8-0 in Australian Open semifinals in her illustrious career, and she has won seven of her 23 Grand Slams down under. Both have plenty of momentum heading into the semifinal match.
Osaka, who's playing style mirrors Williams with her powerful shots and serve, saved two match points against two-time Grand Slam winner Garbine Muguruza in their fourth round match before downing Hsieh Su-wei in just 66 minutes, in straight sets. She hit 24 winners and lost only two points on her first serve in the win.
"[I'm] definitely really happy with how I played today. Every time I play [Su-wei], it's always such a battle," Osaka said after her quick quarterfinal win. "Even though the score was like this, it was actually another battle for me. She's able to hit winners off both sides. You never know when she's about to go for it."
Both Osaka and Williams have dropped just one set thus far in the tournament -- both coming in their fourth round matches.
The path to the semifinals
- 1R: Laura Siegemund, 6-1, 6-1
- 2R: Nina Stojanovic, 6-3, 6-0
- 3R: Anastasia Potapova, 7-6 (7-5), 6-2
- 4R: Aryna Sabalenka, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4
- QF: Simona Halep, 6-3, 6-3
- 1R: Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, 6-1, 6-2
- 2R: Caroline Garcia, 6-2, 6-3
- 3R: Ons Jabeur, 6-3, 6-2
- 4R: Garbine Muguruza, 6-4, 4-6, 7-5
- QF: Hsieh Su-wei, 6-2, 6-2
Head-to-Head (2-2 all-time)
The two power hitters have faced each other just four times and all of their matches have been on the hard court surface. Their first matchup at a Grand Slam came in the 2018 US Open final, where Osaka overtook Williams in straight sets for her first Grand Slam title.
The 2018 championship match was marred by controversial penalties. Chair umpire Carlos Ramos gave Williams three code violations with the third resulting in a game penalty to give Osaka a 5-3 lead in the second set. Ultimately, it resulted in Williams' second straight loss (at the time) in a major final.
While Osaka took their first two matches against each other, Williams has won the two most recent matches.
2021 - A Day at the Drive - Final
Winner - S. Williams, 6-2, 2-6, 10-7
2019 - Rogers Cup - Quarterfinals
Winner - S. Williams, 6-3, 6-4
2018 - US Open - Final
Winner - Osaka, 6-2, 6-4
2018 - Miami Open - First Round
Winner - Osaka, 6-3, 6-2
Prediction and pick
Williams has looked great this tournament. There's a different sense of steadiness and ease that we haven't seen from her in a while. The extended break in play due to the coronavirus pandemic (only two Grand Slams took place in 2020) seems to have lifted the pressure a bit for title No. 24. There's been a camera crew following her and her family around at this year's Australian Open (presumably to document and capture the moment she breaks Margaret Court's record ... if she does), her defense is untouchable, she's rocking a powerful, Flo-Jo inspired Nike look at each of her matches.
More importantly, it feels like she feels like this is finally her time.
When you're playing Williams, you could play the best tennis of your life, and still come out as the runner-up. I think that's going to be the case for Osaka in this upcoming semifinal. Williams is back to embracing her powerful groundstrokes and is also rallying and outlasting her opponents.
The pick: Williams moves on to the championship match with a three-set victory over Osaka. The winner of Wednesday's Williams-Osaka semifinal will face either No. 22-ranked Jennifer Brady or No. 25 Karolina Muchova, who upset No. 1 Ashleigh Barty in the quarterfinals.
Where: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
When: Wed., Feb. 17 at 10 p.m. ET
Highlights: CBS Sports HQ