They have, of course, been here before. The latest match pits Serena Williams, the queen of tennis, against Naomi Osaka, the youngster who is her heir apparent.
The two will meet for the fifth time Wednesday night in a glittering Australian Open semifinal that has evoked Brady-Mahomes comparisons.
For Williams, the 10th seed at the age of 39, the road to tying Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles has been marked by nine previous failures. She last won a Grand Slam, tying Steffi Graf with her 23rd title, in Australia in 2017 when she was in the first months of pregnancy with daughter Olympia. Since then, she has advanced to Grand Slam semifinals once and to finals four times.
Williams and Osaka, the third seed, are 2-2 in head-to-head matches, but Williams has won the last two. They met for the first time in the 2018 Miami Open and again memorably in their controversial 2018 U.S. Open championship.
During the second set, the chair umpire warned Williams about violating rules by getting signals from her coach. Williams disputed that and told him she was not a cheater. She received another code violation when she smashed her racket onto the court after Osaka had broken her serve. Under WTA and Grand Slam rules, that cost her a point. Two games later, she demanded that the umpire apologize for “stealing” a point from her.
“You will never, ever be on a court of mine as long as you live. You owe me an apology,” Williams told him. “Say it. Say you’re sorry . . . I have never cheated in my life.”
She called him a “thief,” and a third code violation for verbal abuse resulted in a game penalty that put Osaka one game from the championship. Boos rained down from an Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd hoping to see history and continued during the trophy presentation.
“I know you guys were here rooting, and I was rooting, too, but let’s make this the best moment we can,” Williams told the crowd as she and Osaka wept. “We’ll get through it . . . Let’s not boo anymore. Let’s get through this.”
For her part, Osaka said, “I’m sorry it had to end like this” when it was her turn to speak.
The two met once in 2019 at the Canadian Open (Rogers Cup) and have faced one another once this year, in the only three-setter of their four meetings. Williams took that one, in the championship of an Australian Open tuneup, by a 6-2, 2-6, 10-7 score.
Since then, the admiration has been mutual, even as Osaka has risen to No. 1 in the world rankings (she now is third). Now 23, Osaka has never lost in six semifinal or final appearances in a Grand Slam event and arrives at this moment as a two-time U.S. Open champion (in 2020) as well as the 2019 Australian Open winner. But she admitted she remains in awe of Williams, one of the greatest athletes of all time – the greatest, according to a T-shirt worn by Alexis Ohanian, Williams’s husband, earlier this week as he sat in the stands in Melbourne.
“She’s Serena,” Osaka told reporters. “I feel really intimidated when I see her on the other side of the court.”
Both have moved on – and even toward one another – since that U.S. Open moment over two years ago.
“We both have had closure,” Williams told reporters, “and we have reached out to each other.”
Both have taken a stance on social justice issues, with Williams leading the way just as she provided inspiration to a young Osaka when she first took up tennis. During the U.S. Open last September, Osaka wore different a face mask for each match, with each bearing the name of a victim of police violence, and a Black Lives Matter T-shirt.
“Honestly, she’s like a living icon,” Osaka told reporters in New York. “Like, I would not be here without her.”