Serena Williams has been denied her opportunity to match Australian Margaret Court's record of 24 major singles titles after she was beaten by 23-year-old Naomi Osaka at the Australian Open in Melbourne on Thursday.
The highly anticipated women's singles semifinal at Rod Laver Arena had a noticeable buzz from crowds returning to the stands for the first time after a five-day lockdown, the result of a small coronavirus outbreak in Melbourne which led the state government to impose snap Covid-19 containment measures.
Osaka won the match 6-3, 6-4 to advance to the Australian Open final for the second time. She has now won 20 consecutive matches, last losing in February last year.
"I don't know if there's any little kids out here today, but I was a little kid watching her play," Osaka said of Williams on court after the win. "Just to be on the court playing against her for me is a dream."
Williams, 39, embraced Osaka after the match. She then waved to the crowd as she departed, putting a hand over her heart.
Williams was asked in a post-match news conference if the gesture meant farewell.
"I don't know. If I ever say farewell, I wouldn't tell anyone, so," she said.
Visibly emotional, Williams left the news conference after the next question.
After the news conference, Williams posted the following on Instagram: "Melbourne and my Australian fans- Today was not ideal outcome or performance but it happens... I am so honored to be able to play in front of you all. Your support -your cheers, I only wish I could have done better for you today. I am forever in debt and grateful to each and everyone single one of you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I adore you."
Williams' last major title was at the 2017 Australian Open, when she was eight weeks pregnant. This is her first loss in an Australian Open semifinal, having previously gone 8-0 at that stage in the tournament.
Osaka, the reigning US Open champion and winner of the 2019 Australian Open, is undefeated in grand slam quarterfinals, semifinals and finals. All of her career titles -- including her three majors -- have come on hard courts. She now has a 3-1 career record against Williams, including when she defeated Williams in the infamous 2018 US Open final.
Osaka is the heavy favorite in the final on Saturday. She will face No. 22 seed Jennifer Brady of the United States, who defeated No. 25 seed Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 in the second semifinal. In their last meeting, the US Open semifinals five months ago, Osaka defeated Brady 7-6(1), 3-6, 6-3.
At age 25, this will be Brady's first major final.
On the men's side, Novak Djokovic reached the Australian Open final for the ninth time by beating No. 114-ranked Aslan Karatsev 6-3, 6-4, 6-2.
It was tight for the first seven games — before Djokovic reeled off eight straight points to win the first set — and again when Karatsev went on an all-or-nothing roll late in the second set.
Sensing a shift in support for the underdog — there was a loud, vocal crowd at Rod Laver Arena after a five-day span when fans were barred during a local COVID-19 outbreak — Djokovic moved up a gear and finished off his opponent 6-3, 6-4, 6-2.
He's now 9-0 in semifinals at the season-opening major, and one win from a ninth Australian title.
"The more I win, the better I feel coming back," the top-ranked Djokovic said. "The love affair continues."
Djokovic will have a day off Friday when No. 4 Daniil Medvedev and No. 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas, who is coming off a five-set win over Rafael Nadal, meet in the other semifinal. He said he'd have a rest and get the popcorn ready to watch and see who he gets to face in Sunday's final.
Given his past success in Melbourne, Djokovic should feel confident going into another championship match. He already owns an all-time record eight Australian titles, and he's aiming for an 18th major title, which would reduce the gap to Roger Federer and Nadal, who share the men's record at 20.
The 33-year-old Serb also is aiming to be only the second man to win nine or more titles at one of the four Grand Slams. Nadal has 13 at Roland Garros. Djokovic, in Australia, and Federer, with eight at Wimbledon, currently share second place.
"Recovery is the priority right now," Djokovic said. "I've had enough match play, enough practice.
"Right now it's just gathering all the necessary energy for the most important match of the Australian Open."
text by Jill Martin, CNN and Associated Press