Naomi Osaka gave a beautiful tribute to beaten opponent Serena Williams, then left the Rod Laver Arena crowd in stitches.
After coming out swinging and getting to an early 2-0 lead, Williams was quickly subdued by the Japanese star, who immediately broke back to pull level.
From that point on the match was played on Osaka’s terms, with the world No.3 getting on top of Williams’ serve and powering through the first set to get within sight of her second Australian Open final, which she will start a red hot favourite.
It was a humbling loss for Williams, who has played some of her best tennis since she returned after a lay-off following the birth of her daughter Olympia three years ago.
The American 39-year-old has once again looked an intimidating force in Melbourne, with her coach Patrick Mouratoglou saying she had finally won her battle with a series of physical issues and had rediscovered the game that made her a champion.
Yet, there were only a few moments, save for her rampaging start, when she was able to impose her will on Osaka who is firming up her position as the 23-time Grand Slam winner’s natural heir.
Resilient as always, Williams briefly rallied from a break down in the second set to square it at 4-4 but, having broken Osaka to get the set back on level terms she handed the break straight back with a loose service game.
When Osaka stepped up to the mark to serve for the match she wouldn’t be denied, with an assured game to eliminate the superstar she grew up idolising.
After the match Nine’s Jim Courier asked Osaka how she had conquered a serve that had become Williams’ trademark weapon over a career that has spanned more than two decades, the amiable personality of the young star had the crowd in stitches.
“I was just guessing, I don’t know,” she said, as the Rod Laver Arena crowd roared with approval.
“It’s either going this way or that way, I’ve just got to put my foot somewhere.”
Earlier in the interview Osaka had given a beautiful tribute to her beaten opponent, explaining what it was like to take the court against someone she admired so deeply.
“I think honestly for me it’s just always an honour to play her. I just didn’t want to go out really bad so I wanted to try my best,” Osaka said.
She added that it was difficult to think of a tennis match against Williams in the same way as other matches due to the way she had always put her on a pedestal.
“I think yes, but for me, I don’t know if there’s any little kids here today but I was a little kid watching her play, just to be on the court with her is a dream,” Osaka said.
“And I think the biggest thing I’ve learned over the years is just like, you know, you’re a competitor but you’re playing against another competitor, that itself is the funnest (sic) part because tennis is a game.”
Osaka’s on-court interview followed a poignant moment for Williams as she prepared to exit the court, with the legend holding her heart and waving at the crowd as if to say goodbye for the last time.
Asked about it in the press conference, Williams struggled to hold it together, eventually tearing up and walking out.
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