Serena tops Halep at Australian Open, sets up Osaka showdown

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United States' Serena Williams reacts after winning a point against Romania's Simona Halep during their quarterfinal match at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021.(AP Photo/Hamish Blair)

MELBOURNE – Serena Williams was not pleased with the way her play suddenly was slipping in the Australian Open quarterfinals.

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 indicate it wasn’t her fault. After another, Williams looked up at her guest box with palms up and asked, “What is happening?”

That dismay didn't last long. Williams recalibrated her shots with the help of terrific footwork, overcame 33 unforced errors and claimed the last five games, beating Halep 6-3, 6-3 Tuesday to return to the final four at Melbourne Park for the first time since she won the tournament in 2017. That was her most recent Grand Slam title.

“I just realized I was making a lot of unforced errors in those games that I lost. And I knew that I had an opportunity to play better,” said Williams, now two wins away from claiming her record-tying 24th major singles championship. “So I was just like, ‘Just stay in there. You just can keep going.’ And that’s what I just did.”

She set up a showdown against No. 3 Naomi Osaka, a three-time Slam champ who will carry a 19-match winning streak into Thursday’s semifinals.

“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 matchup; the most memorable, of course, was Osaka's victory in the 2018 U.S. Open final.

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