When Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka met in the final of the 2018 US Open, Arthur Ashe Stadium was chaos.

Williams received three very controversial fouls, the last of which resulted in a penalty for which Osaka took a 5-3 lead in the second set. The crowd booed throughout the final battle and Osaka’s award ceremony.

It was a painful moment for both players. Frustrated by losing his second consecutive major final, Williams also felt compelled to calm the storm by asking fans to stop harassing him. Osaka, meanwhile, was unable to celebrate and enjoy her first win in a Grand Slam tournament, but instead offered a tearful apology for her victory.

Just minutes after Williams defeated Simona Halep 6-3, 6-3 in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open on Tuesday, he was already being asked about his next opponent.

She praised Osaka, whom she will meet in the semifinals on Thursday, calling her an inspiration for her work on and off the court. Then she added: I’ve been watching her, and I’m sure she’s been watching me, and I feel this is a good opportunity for me to keep doing my best.

It was a brief, if fleeting, look at what the game means to the often wary Williams. The two have been inseparable since the 2018 US Open. Between now and the start of their match in Melbourne, there will no doubt be endless discussions about their last encounter and speculation about the importance of this factor for both players.

But for Williams and Osaka, two champions who represent the past, present and future of women’s tennis, there is a mutual respect that goes far beyond television chatter, and an appreciation for what the other has done and continues to do for the sport. Plus, they’re both focused on big things, like winning.

I don’t know if we’ll ever fully distance ourselves from what happened, but they both have enough motivation to win,” said Pam Shriver, ESPN analyst and 21-time two-time champion. That’s all you need.

Serena Williams lost the final of the US Open to Naomi Osaka, and the two have been linked ever since. Mohammed Elshami/Agence Anadolu/Getty Images

Both players are looking forward to playing for a major title again. Williams has reached her 24-year record since returning from childbirth in 2018 and has since played in four finals, including against Osaka, but at her biggest moments she has struggled to live up to expectations. Osaka has already won three titles in his short career, including the 2020 U.S. Open in September, and is back in form after a period of drought following her first two slam victories. Had she finished fourth, she would have been the third-best active player in the circuit – after Williams and her sister Serena Venus – and that would have confirmed Osaka’s status as the sport’s heir apparent.

But Williams wasn’t ready to part with her crown (note the shiny queen necklace she wore in Melbourne), because it was in old form. She won her first three games in easy sets and the fourth against the seventh seeded player, Arina Sabalenka. Williams defeated Sabalenka 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 thanks to his powerful strokes and aggressive playing style. And she showed no signs of fatigue against Halep on Tuesday. Although the result was less lopsided than one might think, Williams controlled the game firmly for long periods.

What I like about Serena is her ability to win long rallies in a way she couldn’t have done last year or the year before, Shriver said. She will certainly never move like she did in her prime, but she is moving much better than she has since returning from maternity leave. Some of the things we’ve seen from their defense have been incredible in this tournament.

Osaka’s path to the semifinals was similar: She survived the first three matches before facing two-time champion Garbine Muguruza in the fourth. Osaka missed two match points before winning 4-6, 6-4, 7-5. But in the quarter-finals, she struggled with Su Wei Hsieh – winning 6-2, 6-2. Her play and mental strength made her the favorite to win the title.

According to Shriver, Osaka is the player to beat throughout the tournament, no matter who she plays against.

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Williams and Osaka have faced each other only once since their meeting in New York, a very easy affair in the quarterfinals of the 2019 Canadian Open. Williams won in easy sets and later admitted that she felt more comfortable in this match than in the previous one.

I knew her game a little better, so it’s a little easier, she said after the match. I’m just a little better overall. I know their game. I watch it a lot.

For most of his career, Williams was a key player. But she’s lost some of her intimidation factor since she’s been back, and with what you’ve been doing for me lately…. In the world of women’s tennis, she is sometimes overshadowed by some younger players who have won major tournaments, such as Ashley Barty, Sofia Kenin, Bianca Andrescu, Halep and perhaps most importantly Osaka. Since the 2018 French Open, where Williams returned to the forefront, no one has reached more quarterfinals, semifinals or finals than Williams. But no one has won more titles in that time than Osaka.

At 39 and 23, Williams and Osaka are opposites. Osaka grew up with Serena and Venus Williams, and she cited the sisters as inspiration to get started with the sport. From her childhood, she dreamed of being able to play with them.

Although they are both in the hunt for the same trophies on the WTA Tour, Osaka still admires Williams. And she still has her eye on her, as she freely admitted on Tuesday after her victory over Hsieh.

I always watch Serena’s matches anyway, she said when asked if she would watch her potential quarterfinal opponent in the evening.

Osaka not only wins lucrative advertising contracts and magazine covers, but also follows Williams’ path as a great advocate for racial and gender equality. Osaka’s decision to boycott the Western & Southern Open after police shot Jacob Blake dead in Kenosha, Wisconsin, forced the suspension of the tournament for one day.

Osaka wore a series of seven masks, one for each match, during her championship at the United States Open to commemorate the victims of racial injustice and police brutality. At the US Open, she said Williams had paved the way for her to make her voice heard.

Honestly, she’s like a living icon, she says. Like I wouldn’t be here without her.

Serena Williams wants to make history and break Margaret Court’s record of 24 major titles. AP

It has not yet been decided whether spectators will travel to the Rod Laver Arena due to the ongoing lockdown in Melbourne. It is expected to end at 11.59pm on Wednesday, but this has yet to be confirmed by the local authority in Victoria. Both players played well in an empty stadium at the 2020 US Open, so Shriver doesn’t think this will be a big factor for them.

They’ve kind of gotten used to it, she says. As for Serena, I thought she played very well without the crowd. I think it’s best for her not to be distracted. She has so much motivation and desire to achieve 24 that she can encourage herself and not depend on the energy of the crowd to do so.

Fans or not, Thursday’s semi-final will be dominated by an exciting duel. As for the past, Williams and Osaka are only looking to the future.

I think we both have an ending, Williams said Tuesday. And we’ve grown closer. I’ve really reached out to her and… she’s a great competitor and she’s a great cat…

g2g This is clearly the goal. Obviously I have an incredible opponent, so it would be nice if I can continue to improve. I have to do this.

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