MELBOURNE, Australia — For the second time in two consecutive hardcourt Grand Slam events, Serena Williams’s Sisyphean pursuit of Margaret Court’s record of 24 major singles titles ended in the semifinals at the hands of a former world No. 1.
On Thursday, it was Naomi Osaka extinguishing Williams’s blaze through the Australian Open, handing her a 6-3, 6-4 defeat.
The loss came five months after Williams took the first set but was toppled at the United States Open by Victoria Azarenka. Despite moving as well on the court as she has in years, Williams, 39, could not keep pace with Osaka, 23, a three-time Grand Slam champion who has a streak of 20 match victories.
Osaka finished with 20 winners to 12 by Williams, who left the Rod Laver Arena court to a standing ovation from the spectators, who returned to Melbourne Park on Thursday after a five-day lockdown was lifted. She acknowledged the ovation by waving to the crowd and placing her hand over her heart.
In the final, Osaka will face the winner of a match between Jennifer Brady of the United States and Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic.
Williams’s last Grand Slam title came at the 2017 Australian Open, which she won while two months pregnant with her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian. Since returning to competition in 2018 after a difficult childbirth, which included a C-section delivery and complications stemming from blood clots, Williams has played in 11 Grand Slam tournaments and advanced to the semifinals or finals in six.
The Australian player Samantha Stosur, who defeated Williams in the 2011 U.S. Open final for her only Grand Slam singles title, said that Williams didn’t need to equal or surpass Court to cement her status as the greatest player in the history of the women’s game.
“I think many players would already think that and argue that fact regardless, whether she gets this 24th title or not,” Stosur said Thursday.
The difficulty of standing on the precipice of history, as Williams has for the past four years, is focusing on the here and now under circumstances like those on Thursday, when she was so close to the milestone that she could hear her name being carved into the game’s annals.
“It’s definitely not easy,” said Patrick Mouratoglou, who has coached Williams since 2012.
He added: “The only way is to focus on how to get what you want. You don’t think about what you want, you just think about what you have to do.”
In the first set, Williams did not record a winner on her forehand, her strongest side. Ten of her 16 unforced errors (against four winners) came on that wing. Her frustrations boiled over early in the second set, and she screamed to herself, “Make some shots!”
Against Osaka, Williams knew that she had to serve better than she had in the fourth round against Aryna Sabalenka and in the quarterfinals against the former world No. 1 Simona Halep. After beating Halep, Williams bemoaned the disappearance of her 136-m.p.h. weapon.
“Where is that?” she said. “It’s eluding me.”
Williams’s serve, considered the most formidable in the history of women’s tennis, continued to drag her down instead of lifting her to easy points. And unlike Halep, Osaka was able to pounce on Williams’s safe offerings and turn Williams’s service games into defensive stands. Osaka broke Williams four times, including twice in the first set.
Whenever she goes deep into the second week of a major tournament, Osaka has been an impossible out. She has a 4-0 record in Grand Slam semifinals and has won the championship in her previous three trips to the finals.