Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and an Australian Open semifinal years in the making

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OlympicTalk
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Had the Australian Open been played in its usual late January window, Serena Williams didn’t think she would have reached this point: a semifinal with Naomi Osaka, their first major meeting since that unforgettable 2018 U.S. Open final.

Had the Australian Open been played in January, Williams didn’t think she would have played a single match in Melbourne.

“I couldn’t practice because of my Achilles,” Williams said on Feb. 1, her first press conference since Sept. 30, when she withdrew before her French Open second-round match, saying she was “struggling to walk.” “I needed every time. I don’t think I would have been here if it was during the regular season. So, whew, that was an unwanted blessing, I would say, but it was much needed.”

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Women | Men

Williams goes into the Osaka showdown (Thursday, 10 p.m. ET) as an underdog. But with her play in the first five rounds, the 10th seed has only bettered her chances to win a 24th Grand Slam singles title to tie Margaret Court‘s all-time record.

Williams, also nursing a shoulder injury before the event, sprinted past her first three opponents while wearing a Florence Griffith Joyner-inspired outfit. In the round of 16, she took out seventh seed Aryna Sabalenka in a three-set slugfest that had the sport’s experts marveling at the 39-year-old mom’s movement.

“She’s playing as well as I’ve seen her play for a long time,” No. 2 seed Simona Halep‘s coach, Darren Cahill, said before the quarterfinals. “She’s moving as well as I’ve seen her move and defend in the last four or five years.”

The next day, Williams outplayed Halep 6-3, 6-3 to reach the semis.

After that match came a moment: Williams, exiting Rod Laver Arena in a tunnel, began swinging her right arm and bobbing her head as if to music while ascending stairs. It appeared she then noticed a world feed camera, stopped and smiled as she marched carrying her bags out of view.

Williams’ play and that mini dance brought back memories from her peak runs. Most notably crushing Maria Sharapova in the 2012 Olympic final 6-0, 6-1, followed by her most famous post-match dance.

After the Halep match, a reporter told Williams that she won consecutive 20- and 12-shot rallies. The question: When was the last time you felt like those kinds of rallies belonged to you?

“It’s been a long minute,” she answered, smiling. “I think 19 … 1926. The summer of 1926 I think was the last time I felt that.”

This will be Williams’ sixth major semifinal since she returned from life-threatening 2017 childbirth, most of any woman on tour.

Osaka is second on that list, but Williams would trade places. Osaka is 6-0 in semifinals and finals in that span. Williams has four runners-up, stuck on 23 majors since winning the Australian Open while pregnant four years ago.

One of those finals pitted Williams against Osaka at the 2018 U.S. Open.

Williams famously got into an argument with a chair umpire after her coach was caught trying to relay a signal from the stands. She was penalized a game. Osaka closed out her first major title, and the trophy ceremony was overrun with boos from the New York crowd over what happened with Williams.

Williams consoled a tearful Osaka at the time, and months later said she apologized to her in writing.

“I think we both have had closure,” Williams said after beating Halep.

Osaka, the pre-event favorite, is on a 19-match win streak of her own. Her last defeat was more than a year ago. But none of those matches came against Williams (though they played a late January exhibition in Adelaide, won by Williams).

In fact, Williams won their only meeting since the 2018 U.S. Open — in straight sets in 2019. And Williams is regularly in Osaka’s view, if not on her mind. Osaka said this week that she always watches Williams’ matches.

“I feel really intimidated when I see her on the other side of the court,” she said.

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Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and an Australian Open semifinal years in the making originally appeared on NBCSports.com