Australian Open: What you need to know

ICYMI: Best of Day 10

The 2021 Australian Open semifinals are set. Here is what’s at stake for all four players, along with the keys for Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams from a couple of former players:

2021 Australian Open semifinals

As she heads into Thursday’s titanic semifinal against Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams has a few streaks going that bear consideration:

She’s on an amazing 12-0 run versus top three players in majors. This goes back to 2007, when she lost to No. 1-ranked Justine Henin in the quarterfinals of the US Open. Since then, she’s beaten Victoria Azarenka (3), Maria Sharapova (2), Simona Halep (2), Venus Williams, Caroline Wozniacki, Dinara Safina, Jelena Jankovic and Agnieszka Radwanska. All when they were all at the top of their game, and all on the biggest stages the sport offers.

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And then there is her perfect run of 8-0 in Australian Open semifinals. Eighteen years ago, Williams beat Kim Clijsters on her way to her first title Down Under. For context it’s worth noting that Clijsters has retired twice and come back twice in the intervening years. She’s 37 and could conceivably retire a third time before Serena chooses to step aside.

In the other semifinal, it’s No. 22 Jennifer Brady opposite No. 25 Karolina Muchova. One of them will become the seventh woman to reach her first Grand Slam final in the past nine majors. Brady, into her second Grand Slam singles semifinal in five months, has dropped the fewest games (26) among the final four, followed by Osaka (32), Williams (33) and Muchova (44).

Even for rivals, Serena remains must-see TV.

“I grew up watching Serena, Federer, Nadal,” Osaka said after defeating Hsieh Su-Wei 6-2, 6-2 to reach the final four. “It’s just more of a habit than anything. But I feel like everyone in the tournament watches her.”

Here’s another terrific opportunity.

No. 3 Naomi Osaka vs. No. 10 Serena Williams:

In the seventh game of her match against Halep, there was an extraordinary exchange of 20 shots. Serena, one day short of a decade older, looked like the fitter player. She won the next point, a 12-shot rally, as well and scored a decisive break of serve.

When was the last time she felt those extended points were hers to win?

“It’s definitely been a minute,” Serena told reporters afterward. “It’s been a long minute. I think 19... 1926, the summer of 1926, I think was the last time I felt that.”

Joking aside, she revealed in a brief post-match interview the off-season secret of her success.

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“I worked really hard on my fitness,” she explained. “Couldn’t do physical work because of this silly Achilles. I can’t go on national television unfit, so that was my motivation.”

Halep agreed, saying, “The fact that she’s moving better, of course it’s a good thing for her. It’s much easier to hit the balls. It’s tougher for the opponents to finish the point.”

Serena won 14 rallies of nine or more shots, eight more than Halep.

Her coach Patrick Mouratoglou says she’s moving better than she has the last three post-childbirth years.

“I mean, it’s a sport where you have to be able to move fast from side to side and long enough,” he explained. “It’s something that probably in the last two, three years, this had consequences for Serena. Even more, when you’re not in a good day, you need to have a Plan B, you have to be able to move well. If you can't move well, there is no Plan B.

“I think it cost her a few important matches. So we have decided to find a way to bring back the footwork that she used to have in the past. I feel like she's done a great job.”

Like Serena, Osaka is that rare player who combines power and speed.

The 23-year-old has already won three Grand Slam titles and leads the head-to-head 2-1. The only Grand Slam meeting was the (in)famous 2018 US Open, which Osaka won 6-2, 6-4, but brought tears to both combatants.

Osaka, who has won 19 consecutive matches, comes in as the favorite.

“I think she’s a very strong player,” Serena said. “I feel like she does everything well. She has a good serve, she has a great return, she’s strong on both sides.”

Osaka has a streak of her own going; she’s 10-0 in the quarterfinals or later at Grand Slams. Typically, she’s unimpressed.

“Just because I’ve only been to, I guess, four quarterfinals,” she said. “It feels something like 20. That would be cool. But four, it’s not really doing too much for me.”

Serena, on the other hand, has her full attention.

“She’s Serena, someone that I feel really intimidated when I see her on the other side of the court,” Osaka said. “I think for me, the biggest thing I’ve improved is my mentality. This is kind of where, like, guts come in. I think everyone’s very nervous, everyone wants to win. So managing that is definitely important.”

Keys for Osaka

Return of serve:  “Naomi is going to need to be aggressive on Serena’s second serve and capitalize on those points. This could help get inside Serena’s head. When Serena loses serve, it can bother her.” – Jill Craybas, former World No. 39, who beat Serena at Wimbledon 2005

Controlling pressure: “Playing Serena in the semifinals instead of a final is a bit of a different situation. One that could favor Serena perhaps more because there is a little less pressure. So Osaka is going to have to stay within herself.” – Craybas

Strategy: “Osaka is so good at opening the court that playing the ball down the center of the court really hard to try and jam Serena, then to attack the next ball could be an effective strategy. But that down-the-middle ball has to be deep so Serena can’t attack it.” – Craybas

Photo by WTA Staff

First serve: “Whoever has the highest first serve percentage will probably win. It’s no guarantee, but they both rely so much on holding serve.” – Rennae Stubbs, former World No. 1 in doubles, current commentator for various networks

Managing emotions: “She’s playing against someone we know who is her idol. Even though she’s beaten Serena a couple of times, it’s still a monumental moment.” -- Stubbs

Forehand: “This applies to Serena as well, but whoever can control and take dominance of their forehand will have an advantage.” – Stubbs

Keys for Williams

Stay focused: “There were times during the match against Halep where I thought she felt a little anxious, but recovered quickly. I think that focus is going to be really important against Osaka.” – Craybas

Defense: “Serena has been talking about her fitness and this is the best I have ever seen her defend. This is going to be crucial against Osaka.” – Craybas

Controlled breathing: “She was looking at the clock before her serves and making sure she is taking time in between each point and taking deep breaths. I feel this helped her reassess before every point.” – Craybas

Serve: “Goes without saying, but Serena’s going to have to hold because Naomi doesn’t drop serve very much.” -- Stubbs

Emotions: “She’s only two matches away from trying the record so there’s added pressure, so many emotional ties. Don’t get too high or too low.” -- Stubbs

Sustained defensive efforts: “Everyone talks about her power and her serve, but Serena is someone who doesn’t always get the credit for keeping the ball in the court because of her speed. But she can turn defense into offense so quickly. Her defensive skills are going to have to come into play big time against such a big hitter.” -- Stubbs

No. 22 Jennifer Brady vs. No. 25 Karolina Muchova

World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty was up 6-1, 2-1 when Muchova called for a medical timeout.

“I was feeling kind of dizzy at some point, like really, really lost and almost fainting,” Muchova recounted. “So, yeah, I just asked for help. Definitely they cooled me down with the ice. I was a bit in a shadow.”

When play resumed nine minutes later, it was a different match. Muchova stunned Barty 1-6, 6-3, 6-2 to advance to her first career major semifinal.

“It’s within the rules,” Barty said. “She’s within her rights to take that time. If she wasn’t within the rules, the physios and the doctors would have said so. Obviously she needed that today.”

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Muchova will need another huge effort against Brady, who is into her second straight hardcourt major semifinal after beating Jessica Pegula 4-6, 6-2, 6-1. The 24-year-old American lost to Osaka at last year’s US Open in a thrilling three-set match.

“I think we won match of the year on the women’s side,” Brady said. “I’m looking to hopefully replicate that in the next round tomorrow for my semifinal match. Yeah, I think just really going out there knowing that if I just give my best effort, I can be proud of myself.”

Muchova won the only match between them, a three-setter in 2019 Prague, on her way to her first WTA final.

“Yeah, she is a very good player, very big strokes, fast ones,” Muchova said. “So definitely going to be tough battle.”

But that was on clay. After emerging from a hard, 14-day quarantine, Brady emerged to win eight of nine matches. With a first-time major final berth on the line, both players will be buoyed by adrenaline.

“She’s crafty,” Brady said of Muchova. “She looks to move forward. Has an all-court game. She’s really athletic. I mean, I hope it will be a good, competitive match.

“Yeah, I’m looking forward to it.”