Australian Open 2021: Serena Williams sets up Naomi Osaka semi-finals clash; Aslan Karatsev into last-four at maiden Grand Slam

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Melbourne: As well as she played at the start of her Australian Open quarter-final, Serena Williams suddenly was struggling early in the second set.

After one mistake against No 2 seed Simona Halep — who won the last time they played each other — Williams pointed at her racket strings and made a sour face, as if to make clear it wasn’t truly her own fault. After another, Williams looked up at her guest box with palms up and asked, “What is happening?”

That dismay did not last long. Williams claimed the last five games and beat Halep 6-3, 6-3 on Tuesday to return to the final four at Melbourne Park for the first time since she won the tournament in 2017.

Seeking a record-tying 24th Grand Slam title, Williams set up a showdown against No 3 Naomi Osaka, who will carry a 19-match winning streak into Thursday’s semi-finals.

“She’s Serena,” Osaka said. “I feel really intimidated when I see her on the other side of the court.”

This will be their fourth career matchup — all on hard courts — and Osaka leads 2-1, the most memorable encounter, of course, coming in the final of the 2018 US Open.

Williams got into an argument with the chair umpire after her coach was caught trying to relay a signal — that’s not allowed in Grand Slam play — and wound up being docked a game. Osaka’s victory, which earned her first major title, closed with thousands of fans filling Arthur Ashe Stadium with boos and both of the athletes were in tears during the trophy ceremony.

There were no spectators Tuesday in Rod Laver Arena, because they’ve been banned from the tournament during a five-day government lockdown in response to a local rise in COVID-19 cases (the applause and other crowd noise TV viewers are hearing is being added to the broadcast feed and isn’t actually happening in the stadium).

That loss to Osaka in Flushing Meadows is part of an 0-4 record for Williams in Grand Slam finals since her last championship. Another one of those defeats came against Halep at Wimbledon in 2019.

“Normally I never look at my draw,” Osaka said. “But everyone has told me about my draw here, so I kind of had no choice but to know who my next opponent is. It’s definitely going to be really fun.”

Seeded third, Osaka reached 122 mph (196 kph) on her serve against Hsieh. She hit seven aces, lost only two points on her first serve and was never broken en route to her 19th consecutive victory.

Osaka also played excellent defense, such as in the final game, when she raced forward to chase down a drop shot, flicking a backhand cross-court for a winner.

“I couldn’t afford to be lazy with my footwork,” Osaka said with a smile. “I didn’t want to play three sets.”

At 35, Hsieh was the oldest woman to make her Grand Slam quarter-final debut in the professional era. But Osaka wasn’t fazed by Hsieh’s flat, deceptive two-handed strokes from both sides, pounding forehand winners into both corners.

Hsieh said Osaka is a threat to win the championship.

“She always can go all the way,” Hsieh said. “She just needs to play her game and stay calm. She’s a great player.”

Osaka’s winning streak includes a US Open title in September for her third Grand Slam championship. The streak also includes her fourth-round win last week, when she saved two match points and swept the final four games to overtake Garbiñe Muguruza.

“It makes me a bit more calm, knowing that my back was severely against the wall,” Osaka said.

Karatsev remains unstoppable on debut

Russia's Aslan Karatsev reacts after winning a point against Bulgaria's Grigor Dimitrov during their quarterfinal match at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021.(AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)

Aslan Karatsev never had managed to make it into the main draw of a Grand Slam tournament. Now he just refuses to leave the Australian Open.

Karatsev, a 27-year-old Russian qualifier who is ranked 114th, became the first man in the professional era to reach the semi-finals of his first major tennis tournament by beating 18th-seeded Grigor Dimitrov 2-6, 6-4, 6-1, 6-2 on Tuesday.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” Karatsev said. “Of course, it’s first time. First time in main draw; first time semis. It’s incredible.”

That’s a pretty good word for what he has managed to do. Karatsev failed in nine previous attempts to go through qualifying rounds to play at a Grand Slam tournament.

Now he’s making the most of it, getting past Dimitrov — a three-time major semifinalist — after also eliminating two other seeded players, No 8 Diego Schwartzman and No 20 Felix Auger-Aliassime.

“It’s great to see. I think it’s great to see,” Dimitrov said about Karatsev’s success. “Surprised? No.”

Bothered by back spams that developed Monday, Dimitrov was not at his best. He finished the match barely able to serve — and barely able to walk up the stairs as he departed Rod Laver Arena.

Dimitrov jumped out to an early lead with three service breaks in the first set. He then held seven break points in Karatsev’s first two service games in the second set, but didn’t convert any of them.

That’s when Karatsev started to believe he could stretch his already remarkable run even further.

“It was really tough in the beginning for me to hold my nerves,” Karatsev said. “It was tricky. I tried to play in the second set, to find a way how to play.”

Dimitrov stopped chasing shots in the third set, then was visited by a trainer and took a medical timeout for treatment on a muscle problem around his lower back.

He hadn’t dropped a set in his first four matches here but said he had trouble putting his socks on before the match.
“It started yesterday,” Dimitrov said, “out of the blue.”

Karatsev is the lowest-ranked man to reach the Australian Open semi-finals since Patrick McEnroe — John’s brother — also was No 114 in 1991 — and the lowest-ranked man to reach the semi-finals at any Slam since Goran Ivanisevic was No 125 at 2001 Wimbledon.

Karatsev will play either eight-time champion Novak Djokovic or Alexander Zverev next. Russians Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev are meeting in a quarter-final on the other half of the draw on Wednesday, meaning there’ll be two Russians in the semi-finals at Melbourne Park.

Asked for his thoughts on the possibility of an all-Russian final, Karatsev stuck with what he knows.

“I try not to think about it,” he said, adding that he simply is “going from match to match.”

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