Serena Williams started her quest to match Margaret Court's grand slam record by seeing off Irina-Camelia Begu in the first round of the French Open.

Williams, who reached the semi-finals in Melbourne earlier this year, has been stuck on 23 slam triumphs – one shy of Court's career haul – since winning the 2017 Australian Open.

But the seventh seed in Paris did just enough in a challenging opening outing on Monday, the first official night match in French Open history, overcoming Begu 7-6 (8-6) 6-2 in one hour and 44 minutes.

Begu proved a worthy match, winning four straight games and at one point holding two set points in the opener, but the world number eight's quality and experience ultimately came to the fore.

Having charged into a 5-3 lead, Williams found herself at 0-30 down when serving for the first set, and an overhit slice followed by another errant, awkward backhand gave Begu the break.

More unforced errors followed from Williams as her hopes of clinching the set with a return break were dashed, before the 39-year-old scooped long on her own serve to give Begu the advantage.

The American regained her composure to hit back, though, and force a tiebreak. Begu had two set points to play with at 6-4 up, but Williams rallied, winning the next four to take a hard-fought lead.

A superb drop shot teed Williams up for a break at the start of the second set, yet she tensed up again in game six.

Williams was applauding Begu for a supreme forehand down the line, but the former world number one was soon frustrated as the Romanian clawed back to deuce three times.

Begu's resolve finally crumbled, however, and Williams was left to serve out a win which sets up a second-round tie with Mihaela Buzarnescu.

DATA SLAM: Error-strewn Williams will have to sharpen up

By 3-3 in the tiebreaker, Williams had made 21 unforced errors, in contrast to just seven from Begu. Williams tightened up after nosing ahead, making just nine more in the remainder of the contest, but she will know such issues cannot continue if there is to be a chance of reigning again in the French capital this year.

WINNERS/UNFORCED ERRORS
Williams – 27/30
Begu – 18/17

ACES/DOUBLE FAULTS
Williams – 5/2
Begu – 2/3

BREAK POINTS WON
Williams – 5/8
Begu – 3/5

In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes – a statement largely true until Rafael Nadal emerged on the scene and made the French Open his own.

Since breaking through for his first Roland Garros triumph in 2005, only three other men – Roger Federer, Stan Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic – have managed to interrupt Nadal's dominance in Paris.

Nadal has won 13 French Open men's singles titles, seven more than any other player in the Open era (Bjorn Borg, six) heading into this year's edition.

Despite being seeded third, it would take a brave person to bet against defending champion Nadal adding to his mammoth and unprecedented haul in the French capital, where the second grand slam of the year gets underway on Sunday.

On the women's side, defending champion Iga Swiatek is looking to follow in the footsteps of Belgian great Justine Henin.

As all eyes shift to Court Philippe Chatrier and its surroundings, Stats Perform looks at the numbers behind this year's slam, using Opta data.

 

The 'King of Clay'

Nadal will open his title defence against Australian Alexei Popyrin. Since 2000, only Nadal (13) and Gustavo Kuerten (two) have won the French Open more than once.

The 34-year-old swept aside world number one Djokovic in straight sets last year for his fourth consecutive French Open crown and 20th slam trophy, equalling Roger Federer's all-time record. Nadal maintained his stranglehold on the major, having not dropped a set throughout the fortnight. Only three players have previously won the French Open without losing a single set: Ilie Nastase in 1973, Bjorn Borg in 1978 and 1980 and Nadal in 2008, 2010, 2017 and 2020.

Nadal is the only player to have won the same slam more than 10 times. He has lost just two of the 102 matches played in Paris (excluding walkovers), losing to Robin Soderling in the 2009 fourth round and Djokovic in the 2015 quarter-finals, while has won each of the last 30.

The record for most slam titles on the men's circuit will also be up for grabs, with Nadal and the returning Federer seeking to snap their tie.

In the last 25 years, the number one seed has won the French Open on only five occasions – Nadal (2018, 2014 and 2011), Djokovic (2016) and Kuerten (2001). It does not bode well for top seed and 18-time major champion Djokovic, who is looking to close the gap on foes Nadal and Federer.

Australian Open champion Djokovic, who will face Tennys Sandgren in the first round, has reached the final in seven of the last 10 slams he contested, claiming six titles. However, the Serbian star has only featured in five French Open deciders (W1 L4) – fewer than in any of the other three major tournaments.

 

Declining Federer, Nadal challengers?

The French Open will be a welcome sight for tennis fans as Swiss great Federer, who has not played a slam since the 2020 Australian Open due to his troublesome knee and the coronavirus pandemic, makes his comeback.

Seeded eighth ahead of his opener against Denis Istomin, 2009 French Open champion Federer has only contested nine slam finals over the last 10 years (W4 L5) after reaching that stage in 22 major events in the previous decade (W16 L6). Since the beginning of 2016, the 39-year-old has only taken part in one French Open, in 2019, where he reached the semi-finals.

Daniil Medvedev has been flirting with a breakthrough slam triumph. The second seed is a finalist at the Australian Open (2021) and US Open (2019). Medvedev has reached the semi-finals in two of his most recent three appearances at a grand slam after going further than the fourth round in only one of his previous 13 major tournaments. However, the Russian has lost in the first round in each of his four Roland Garros appearances.

US Open champion and fourth seed Dominic Thiem has played two finals at Roland Garros (2018 and 2019) – more than in any other slam – but lost both of them against Nadal. He has won 80 per cent of his games at the French Open, his best win rate in any of the four majors.

Andrey Rublev is the only player to have taken part in the quarter-finals during each of the past three grand slams, including the 2020 French Open. But the seventh seed – who fired down 53 aces at Roland Garros last year, at least 14 more than any other player – is yet to progress further than that round.

Aslan Karatsev enjoyed a fairy-tale run at Melbourne Park in February, the Russian qualifier making it all the way to the semi-finals. Only one qualifier has reached the semi-final stage at the French Open: Filip Dewulf in 1997.

 

Iga in 14-year first?

Having never progressed beyond the fourth round of a major, Polish teenager Swiatek broke through for her maiden slam title via the French Open last year, upstaging Sofia Kenin.

The 19-year-old Swiatek – who will return as the eighth seed in her defence, starting against Kaja Juvan – could become the first woman to win consecutive titles at Roland Garros since Henin in 2005-2007 (three in a row). Only three players have won multiple titles in the women's tournament at the French Open in the 21st century: Henin (four), Serena Williams (three) and Maria Sharapova (two).

Swiatek could claim the French Open and Rome's Internazionali d'Italia in the same campaign. Only Serena Williams (2002 and 2013), Sharapova (2012), Monica Seles (1990), Steffi Graf (1987) and Chris Evert (1974, 1975 and 1980) have achieved the feat previously.

Swiatek celebrated slam glory in the absence of world number one and defending champion Ash Barty in 2020. No player has won more games on clay this season than Australian top seed Barty and Veronika Kudermetova (both 13).

Only Barty (three) has won more titles than third seed Aryna Sabalenka (two) in 2021 – the Belarusian is one of two players currently ranked in the top 20 in the WTA yet to reach a major quarter-final, alongside Maria Sakkari.

In a field also including four-time slam champion and reigning Australian Open winner Naomi Osaka – the second seed – Sabalenka could become only the third woman to win the Madrid Open and French Open in the same season after Serena Williams in 2013 and Sharapova in 2014.

As for fourth seed Kenin, she could be just the fourth American player to reach back-to-back Roland Garros finals, after Serena Williams (2015-16), Martina Navratilova (1984-1987) and Evert (1973-1975, 1979-80 and 1983-1986).

 

All eyes on Serena

The queen of WTA tennis for so long, Serena Williams is one slam success away from matching Margaret Court's record of 24 major singles championships. But the 39-year-old has been stuck on 23 since reigning supreme at the Australian Open in 2017.

While the French clay is not one of her favourite surfaces, it could be the scene of a remarkable achievement following a lengthy wait.

Roland Garros is where Williams has the lowest winning percentage (84 per cent) and where she won the fewest titles (three, at least half as many as the other slams).

Williams won her maiden French Open in 2002 and could hoist the trophy aloft 19 years after her first success in Paris. The longest span between two majors wins for a single player in the Open era is already held by Williams (15 years between 1999 and 2014 at the US Open).

Irina-Camelia Begu awaits the seventh seed in the first round.

Roland Garros, Wimbledon, the US Open, the Olympic Games, Indian Wells: this year's tennis calendar is not lacking in red-ringed dates.

But August 8 and September 26 are majorly notable in that they will mark the 40th birthdays of Roger Federer and Serena Williams, respectively.

Federer's birthday falls on the final day of the Tokyo Olympics, while Williams reaches the same landmark a fortnight after the US Open women's singles final.

Both have kept their future plans quiet, but it would come as no major surprise if one, or both, were to retire by the end of the year.

Fellow grand slam greats Venus Williams, Andy Murray and Kim Clijsters may also be a matter of months away from bowing out of the professional ranks.

Will life after tennis begin at 40 for Williams and Federer, or could the superstar pair return to the French Open in 2022?

Stats Perform looked at the players who may be considering their futures, what they still want to achieve, and their prospects of attaining those remaining goals.
 

Federer's final fling?

Ahead of his 30th, Federer was asked what it felt like to hit such a milestone.

"Birthdays happen. They're part of life," Federer said. "I'm happy I'm getting older. I'd rather be 30 than 20, to be honest. To me it's a nice time."

A decade on, Federer may be similarly equanimous about hitting 40. Family life is good, he'll never need to borrow a dollar, and he has advanced from 16 grand slams to 20.

But the knees would sooner be 30 than 40, and Federer, remarkable sportsman though he is, is coming to the end of the line in his tennis career. It will hurt the Fedfans to think so, but all the evidence points to it. We are probably witnessing a lap of honour.

Having won Roland Garros only once at his peak, we can surely forget the prospect of any heroics in Paris. Federer needs to win a few rounds though, in order to be sharp and battle-hardened for the grass season. Wimbledon, the Olympics and the US Open are events where you might give a fit Federer a chance, even at such a veteran age, but he has played only three matches since the 2020 Australian Open, losing two of those.

Target: Federer has never settled for second best, so he will want to be a tournament winner again, no doubt about it. The hunger does not go away after 20 grand slams, but it can be more difficult to sate.

Prospects: Slim, but not forlorn. So much of Federer's game is about feel and ease of movement, and assuming that knee surgery last year means the body is in good shape again, he should be able to call on those staples of his game. Key missing ingredients are the confidence that comes with beating rivals, and match fitness. Federer's 1,243 wins and 103 singles titles count for an awful lot still, and there could be one final hurrah before the Swiss great signs off.


Serena still one short of Court

From precocious teenager to queen of the tour, Williams' tennis journey has been a 25-year odyssey and there is nobody more driven to succeed than the great American.

It must be an intense frustration that she remains rooted on 23 grand slams, one short of Margaret Court's record haul, and the four grand slam final losses she has suffered while on that mark have been cruel blows.

As her 40th birthday approaches, it would not be a surprise if Williams reached that target, but what once felt inevitable now only has the air of being a possibility. She is becoming less of a factor when looking at title favourites, but Williams is still capable of beating top players, still a threat wherever she shows up.

Target: The 24th slam remains the must-have for Williams. Tour titles feel like an irrelevance, and Williams has won just one of those since January 2017, her calendar built around peaking for the majors since returning from giving birth to daughter Olympia.

Prospects: Beating Aryna Sabalenka and Simona Halep at the Australian Open demonstrated Williams still has the game for the big stage, and a semi-final defeat to Naomi Osaka, to whom she has now lost in three of four encounters, should not particularly detract from that. Williams is playing on clay primarily to get in great shape for grass, because Wimbledon, where she plays the surface with a command that others can only envy, is where that elusive 24th slam looks most likely to come.


Amid losing streak, tennis waits to learn what Venus infers

Some suspect that the Williams sisters, having arrived on tour together, might bow out at the same time too. Venus has won 49 WTA Tour-level titles but has recently slipped out of the top 100 for the first time since early 2012. Ahead of turning 41 in June, it is hard to see her being a reliable force again.

The seven-time slam winner will be needing wildcards for the grand slams unless the wins start to flow, and naturally she should have no trouble getting those backdoor tournament entries, but for a player of her stature, losing in the first round most weeks can offer little satisfaction.

It is 21 years since Venus' greatest tennis summer, when she won the Wimbledon, Stanford, San Diego, New Haven, US Open and Olympics singles titles, along with doubles glory alongside Serena at the Olympics and Wimbledon.

Nevertheless, she said at the Australian Open in February: "I'm trying to get better every day. I think that no matter what happens to you in life, you always hold your head up high, you give a hundred million percent. That's what I do every single day. That's something that I can be proud of."

Target: Venus last won a singles slam in 2008, so forget that. A run to the second week of a slam is not entirely unimaginable, or she could stun a big name early on. Venus will want to wring every last drop from her career, but you suspect more than that, she would love to be there to watch her little sister win that 24th slam.

Prospects: Since a second-round exit to Elina Svitolina at the 2019 US Open, Venus has won only four matches at WTA level, and she is presently on a run of five consecutive defeats, which began with a 6-1 6-0 trouncing by Sara Errani at the last-64 stage of the Australian Open. Her last Wimbledon appearance resulted in a first-round loss to the then 15-year-old Coco Gauff two years ago, so even hopes of a resurgence at the event she has won five times appear somewhat remote.


We wish you a Murray summer

Once a grand slam nearly man, Murray banished that reputation with his US Open triumph and twin Wimbledon titles, not to mention the two Olympic gold medals, the Davis Cup victory, and the 14 Masters 1000 tournaments he won along the way, a big-time champion on every surface.

What a career, and it deserves a fitting ending. Murray is battling one injury after another and will miss the French Open, hoping his tired frame holds up to see him through Queen's Club, Wimbledon, the Olympic hat-trick bid and the US Open.

Target: He would probably say another slam is possible, if he can get healthy and stay that way. The 'if' there is doing an awful lot of heavy lifting though.

Prospects: Should Murray manage to stay injury-free, then it will be enthralling to see what he can achieve. However, since an unexpected title in Antwerp in October 2019, he has won just four matches on the ATP Tour and one in the Davis Cup. The resurfaced hip, the troublesome groin, the pains of being Andy Murray aged 34 are proving wearing on the Scot. If he is fit enough to feature at Wimbledon, it would be a joy to see him play even just one more great singles match on Centre Court. Admirers must hope Murray follows the pattern of his career by exceeding expectations, which are logically low.


Kim wildcard wonder?

If you missed the Clijsters comeback, it is hardly surprising, given she returned to the WTA tour after a near eight-year absence just weeks before the pandemic shut down tennis, and she has barely been seen since. The three-time US Open winner was dealt bum draws in her comeback year but gave Garbine Muguruza, Johanna Konta and Ekaterina Alexandrova enough to think about in the course of three first-round defeats.

Since losing behind closed doors in three sets to Alexandrova at the US Open, Clijsters has undergone knee surgery and had COVID-19, and she does not plan to play again until after Wimbledon.

Target: If Clijsters, who turns 38 in June, can build up form and fitness, then some kinder draws would be a fitting reward for persistence. She could have quietly called time on this comeback, but the former world number one is a fighter, and it would be fitting, perhaps, if her career were to end with a night session match in front of a packed Arthur Ashe Court at Flushing Meadows. The Belgian's intentions are not entirely clear, but that prospect must have crossed her mind.

Prospects: The New York wildcard would be assured if Clijsters can show she is in any sort of form, given her US Open history. Clijsters' immediate potential is entirely unclear, but she had the highest game-winning percentage (66.7 per cent) of any woman in World Team Tennis last year, and Jessica Pegula, Sofia Kenin and Jennifer Brady were all part of that competition. Bring that game to a major and we're talking.

Serena Williams saw her hopes of an extended run at the Emilia-Romagna Open come to an early end on Tuesday, the top seed succumbing to Katerina Siniakova in straight sets.

Williams had taken up a wildcard to play in the tournament following an early exit in Rome, where she was beaten by Nadia Podoroska in her opening contest in the clay-court swing.

Her campaign in Parma got off to a better start on Monday, a 6-3 6-2 result against WTA Tour debutant Lisa Pigato bringing a first triumph since losing in the semi-finals of the Australian Open in February.

However, the 23-time grand slam champion was unable to repel a determined Siniakova as she slipped out at the last-16 stage.

"It was a fantastic match and I played so well, I'm so happy that I could finish like that," Siniakova said after recording a 7-6 (7-4) 6-2 result.

"It was a pleasure to share the court with her.

"Now I will have the pressure because I defeated a great player, but I will enjoy it. I'm happy that I can continue and I will try to play my best in the next match."

Having failed to convert a set point opportunity, Williams hit back after losing serve with a break of her own to force a tie-break in the opener.

But Siniakova forced her way into a 5-3 lead before sealing it with a service winner, then quickly seized control of proceedings in a second set which was far less competitive.

Third seed Coco Gauff came through two tie-breaks to see off Kaia Kanepi, the American teenager having let slip a 5-1 lead in the second set before eventually sealing a 7-6 (8-6) 7-6 (9-7) win.

Petra Martic had no such issues in her opening contest against Varvara Gracheva, the second seed easing through 6-4 6-2 after one hour and 21 minutes on court.

Serena Williams described Roger Federer as "a synopsis of greatness", but the 20-time grand slam champion urged caution ahead of his latest ATP Tour return.

Knee surgery kept Federer out of action for more than a year following the 2020 Australian Open, with the Swiss finally returning to the court in a competitive match in March.

A swift exit in Doha, in just his second match, prompted Federer to return to practice, not playing again until this week's Geneva Open.

His comeback will capture the attention of a fellow tennis legend, as Williams, herself ramping up French Open preparations in Parma, discussed her love for the ATP icon after a win on Monday.

"He's just a synopsis of greatness and class and amazing and really changed the game," Williams said.

"You see players playing like him, moving like him, doing his techniques. The guy is genius.

"I just feel like he is really the greatest player. Just look at him. You can't not like the guy, that's how I feel.

"His game is so fantastic. If I could only play like him!"

Federer is not entirely sure his game will be "so fantastic" when he steps out on the court against Pablo Andujar, though.

The lack of match practice means Federer has modest targets, rather than thinking about challenging great rivals Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.

"I need to do my thing, I need to play 10 matches to give you a better answer [on my level]," he said.

"Of course there are question marks around my level right now. We will find out a little bit more tomorrow [Tuesday].

"In practice, things have been going well, so I'm happy there, and when you come back from an injury, you are in a different place to everybody else.

"The players are there, I'm here at the moment.

"I'm excited about the comeback; that's what my focus needs to be on and not trying to be the same level as Rafa and Novak right now."

And Federer suggested he might have to be even better than before to again be competitive.

"The generation of [Stefanos] Tsitsipas, [Alexander] Zverev, [Andrey] Rublev and [Daniil] Medvedev have all again gotten better naturally, because they have more experience," the 39-year-old said.

"Dominic [Thiem] won a slam in the meantime, Rafa and Novak are still where they are.

"So, you would think that the game has improved again. For me, that's going to be an extra challenge, extra hard to find that level.

"But one I knew from the get-go that would never be simple, regardless if I was going to be out for three months or now almost a year and a half."

Serena Williams had no problems in her opening match at the Emilia-Romagna Open, but sister Venus was unable to join her in the last 16.

Top seed Serena eased to a 6-3 6-2 triumph over teenage qualifier Lisa Pigato in the highlight of Monday's action in the clay-court tournament, wrapping up the result in 68 minutes.

Pigato, 17, was making her debut in the main draw of a professional event having come through qualifying in Parma.

She enjoyed early success against the legendary Williams, too, claiming a break of serve in the opening game, but the 23-time grand slam champion soon got to grips with the task at hand.

"The first game, she played really good and I needed to adjust to get back," Serena said afterwards. "It was a bit of both, figuring out her game as well."

Next up for the American, who accepted a wildcard into the event after an early exit at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia in Rome last week, will be Katerina Siniakova, a 6-1 6-3 winner over Clara Tauson.

Venus, however, failed to make it beyond her opening outing, losing out to Anna Karolina Schmiedlova despite taking the opening set.

The Slovakian made it four wins in five meetings against the seven-time major champion, eventually prevailing 5-7 6-2 6-2 after two hours and 39 minutes on court.

Elsewhere, Sloane Stephens defeated fellow American Caty McNally in two sets, while seventh seed Sara Sorribes Tormo overcame Bernarda Pera 6-4 6-2.

There was also a win in straight sets for eighth seed Caroline Garcia, who got the better of Paula Ormaechea in a contest that saw both players serve impressively.

Serena Williams will play in the Emilia-Romagna Open next week following her early exit in Rome, Patrick Mouratoglou has confirmed.

The legendary American was beaten 7-6 (8-6) 7-5 by Nadia Podoroska in the 1,000th match of her incredible career at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia on Wednesday.

Williams, who was given a bye into the second round at Foro Italico, was playing her first match since losing to Naomi Osaka in the semi-finals of the Australia Open three months ago.

With the French Open getting under way on May 30, Williams has taken a wildcard to get more time on clay under her belt in Parma.

Mouratoglou, the former world number one's coach, tweeted: "Change of plans: Serena hasn't been competing for a while, and we want to get as many matches under our belt as possible before Roland-Garros - so we're adding the Emilia-Romagna Open to our schedule.

"We'll be back in action next week."

Williams will head to Paris for the second major of the year in her latest attempt at matching Margaret Court's record tally of 24 grand slam singles titles.

Simona Halep suffered a worrying leg injury just over two weeks out from the French Open at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia, where Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka crashed out.

Halep, the 2018 French Open champion, had dominated the first set against Angelique Kerber, winning 6-1, but came off the court with an apparent calf problem with the scores level at 3-3 in the second.

She received treatment but an emotional Halep was forced to withdraw from the clash, the defending champion handing victory to Kerber.

The Romanian was then helped from the grandstand court, leaving the area with strapping on her leg and a heavy limp, raising doubts about her ability to compete at Roland Garros, where she would likely be one of the favourites.

Earlier Williams made her first appearance on the tour since February, losing the 1,000th match of her glittering career to Nadia Podoroska, who reached the semi-finals in Paris last year.

Podoroska prevailed 7-6 (8-6) 7-5, with 23-time grand slam champion Williams not too downhearted by a defeat to an accomplished clay-court player.

"It's tough to have a first match on clay. It was definitely kind of good to go the distance and to try to be out there, but clearly I can do legions better," Williams said. 

"She has a good game, for sure, obviously. She's very consistent. Overall, it was good for me to play such a clay-court player on clay today, but it's a little frustrating. But it's all right. It is what it is.

"I have been training for months, but it feels definitely different on clay to make that last adjustment. Just filling out the game, finding the rhythm. Even sliding and confidence with that, with movement. That's always like a little struggle in the first two matches, and then I'm raring to go."

Osaka has yet to find her footing on clay and the reigning Australian Open champion came up short in the second round as she suffered a surprise loss to Jessica Pegula.

Pegula said after her 7-6 (7-2) 6-2 win: "I know she doesn't love clay, so I just tried to be the clay court player out there today, and it worked just good enough."

World number one Ashleigh Barty had no such difficulties in her 6-4 6-1 over Yaroslava Shvedova, but fourth seed Sofia Kenin was a shock loser to Barbora Krejcikova.

Petra Kvitova was beaten in three sets by Vera Zvonareva but Madrid champion Aryna Sabalenka, last year's French Open champion Iga Swiatek, Elina Svitolina, Karolina Pliskova and Garbine Muguruza all progressed while teenager Coco Gauff knocked out 17th seed Maria Sakkari.

Serena Williams made an unsuccessful return to the WTA Tour as she joined Naomi Osaka in crashing out of the Internazionali BNL d'Italia in the second round on Wednesday.

Williams was playing the 1,000th match of her glittering career against Nadia Podoroska, her first since losing in the Australian Open semi-finals to Osaka in February.

The American has experienced significant success in Rome, winning the title four times, but was always likely to be tested by a player who reached the French Open semi-finals last year.

And that proved the case as she slumped to a 7-6 (8-6) 7-5 defeat despite threatening a second set fightback.

Having won the first set on a tie-break, Podoroska continued to dominate the longer exchanges and went 5-2 up in the second.

From there, Williams won 12 straight points to level matters at 5-5, but Podoroska then claimed a nervy service hold to force the 23-time grand slam champion to serve to stay in the match.

She never came close to doing so as Williams was broken to love, a miscued forehand long giving Podoroska one of the biggest wins of her career.

Earlier in the day, Osaka was defeated in straight sets by Jessica Pegula.

Osaka has made no secret of her discomfort on clay, having never gone beyond the third round at Roland Garros.

All of her 10 WTA singles titles have come on the hard court and she was undone on the red dirt once more as Pegula prevailed 7-6 (7-2) 6-2.

 

Serena Williams showed there would be no letting up in her relentless pursuit of tennis history as she hit the practice courts with one of the biggest names on the men's tour.

A semi-final defeat to Naomi Osaka at the Australian Open was the latest blow for Williams in her attempt to match Margaret Court's record of 24 grand slam titles.

Stuck on 23 since winning at Melbourne Park in 2017, Williams has gone repeatedly close in the subsequent years without getting her hands on a major trophy.

She took to the courts with Bulgarian ace Grigor Dimitrov, a beaten quarter-finalist in Australia and former world number three, as part of her continuing bid to keep improving and stay focused on those title goals.

Dimitrov could not resist boasting about the prowess of the player he was hitting with, posting a video of their session and writing on Instagram: "My practice partner is better than yours."

He added a goat emoji, signalling his belief that Williams is the greatest of all time.

Williams gestured a fond goodbye to the Australian Open crowds after her loss to Osaka, and became tearful in an after-match news conference when asked if it was a final farewell.

"I don't know. If I ever say farewell, I wouldn't tell anyone," said the 39-year-old.

Her next appearance on tour is expected to be at the Miami Open, starting on March 23, a tournament which has confirmed Williams, Osaka, Bianca Andreescu and Simona Halep among its field.

There was a little sibling envy from Venus Williams on Sunday when she questioned where Serena and Dimitrov were rallying.

"Omg are you guys hitting now? Where is my invite??" Venus wrote.

The next grand slam on the calendar is the French Open, beginning on May 23, while Serena may see Wimbledon, beginning on June 28, as providing her best chance of another slam.

She has won seven times at the All England Club, two behind the record held by Martina Navratilova.

It remains to be seen whether Serena Williams returns to contest the Australian Open in 2022 but amid long-term doubts, Naomi Osaka said "I want her to play forever".

Williams' long-standing bid to equal Margaret Court's record of 24 grand slam titles was put on hold by three-time major champion Osaka, who overpowered the American superstar 6-3 6-4 in the blockbuster Australian Open semi-final.

Not since claiming the 2017 Australian Open trophy has Williams celebrated a slam crown, and the 39-year-old is not getting any younger as she faded into the Melbourne shadows on Thursday.

Williams broke down in tears and cut short her news conference post-match, having been involved in an emotional moment on Rod Laver Arena, where the seven-time Australian Open champion held her hand on her chest and waved to the crowd.

Asked what it means to face Williams as the clock ticks on a legendary career, Osaka – who topped the veteran in the 2018 US Open final – told reporters: "It definitely means a lot.

"Every time I play her, I feel like it's something I'll definitely remember a lot.

"I don't know, it's kind of sad when you say it like that because for me, I want her to play forever. That's the little kid in me."

Japanese star and third seed Osaka will now face Jennifer Brady in Saturday's final as she eyes her second Australian Open crown.

Osaka has gone on to win the title each time after advancing past the round of 16 at a slam – 2018 US Open, 2019 Australian Open and 2020 US Open, while she is in the midst of a 20-match winning streak.

Asked what makes her so hard to beat in finals, Osaka added: "For me, I have this mentality that people don't remember the runners-up. You might, but the winner's name is the one that's engraved.

"I think I fight the hardest in the finals. I think that's where you sort of set yourself apart. It's the other person who won as many matches as you did. It's something that I think, it's like the biggest fight."

Serena Williams refused to confirm whether she made her last Australian Open appearance after breaking down in tears and leaving her news conference following a semi-final defeat to Naomi Osaka.

Bidding to equal Margaret Court's record of 24 grand slam titles – having last won a major in 2017 – Williams was overpowered 6-3 6-4 by third seed Osaka in Melbourne on Thursday.

It was Williams' first semi-final defeat at the Australian Open following eight consecutive victories in the final four of the year's opening slam.

The 39-year-old American star cut an emotional figure afterwards on Rod Laver Arena, where she held her hand on her chest and waved to the crowd after fans were allowed to attend following a five-day coronavirus shutdown.

Asked about the moment, seven-time Australian Open champion Williams told reporters: "The Aussie crowd is so amazing, so it was nice to see."

When pressed if it was a Melbourne farewell, Williams replied: "I don't know. If I ever say farewell, I wouldn't tell anyone."

A tearful Williams then suddenly ended her news conference after being asked about the match.

Williams was visibly and vocally frustrated against Osaka after seeing an early 2-0 lead slip.

Osaka reeled off five consecutive games and six of the next seven to close out the set before taking complete control against the former world number one.

Williams finished with 24 unforced errors against the three-time slam champion and 2019 Australian Open winner.

At the start of her post-match duties, Williams said: "I wouldn't say I was nervous. The difference today was errors. I made so many errors today.

"Honestly, it was opportunities where I could have won. I could have been up five-love. I just made so many errors."

"I felt like I was hitting well," Williams added. "I was hitting well this whole tournament. Even the first couple games I played well. Even then I had so many opportunities.

"I don't know. Just made too many mistakes there, easy mistakes. Not like I was on the run or anything, they were just easy, easy mistakes."

Serena Williams' quest for a record-equalling 24th grand slam title has been delayed again after being overpowered 6-3 6-4 by third seed Naomi Osaka in the Australian Open semi-finals.

Stuck on 23 slam championships since reigning supreme at Melbourne Park in 2017, Williams was hoping to move within a step of matching Margaret Court's record.

But the 39-year-old former world number one was taken down by three-time major champion Osaka in a blockbuster battle of the big hitters on Thursday.

Japanese star Osaka will now face either Jennifer Brady or Karolina Muchova in Saturday's final as she eyes her second Australian Open crown.

Osaka – the youngest player remaining in the draw – initially struggled under the beaming Melbourne sun as fans returned to Rod Laver Arena following a five-day state-wide lockdown after a coronavirus outbreak.

She was in all sorts, struggling on serve and tallying five unforced errors through two forgettable games as Williams raced out to a 2-0 lead.

Osaka – boasting a 3-0 record in grand slam semis – faced a 30-40 deficit and potential 0-3 hole before digging deep to hold for the first time.

It proved to be a turning point for Osaka, who went on a roll by reeling off five successive games and six of the next seven to take complete control.

The tables turned on Williams, who saw her unforced-error count balloon out to 16 while only hitting four winners in the opening set.

Williams – the oldest woman to reach the semis in Melbourne in the Open Era – carried a flawless Australian Open semi-final record into the contest, having won all eight of her previous final-four showdowns.

But Williams cut a frustrated figure at the start of the second set as she yelled at herself "make a shot" amid her demise – Osaka breaking in the first game before consolidating.

However Osaka, who has gone on to win the title each time after advancing past the round of 16 at a slam – 2018 US Open, 2019 Australian Open and 2020 US Open, lost her way when serving at 4-3 as three double faults saw her broken by Williams.

Williams, beaten by Osaka in an infamous US Open final three years ago, regifted the compliment the very next game, Osaka hitting three stunning winners to break to love before sealing her place in the women's decider.

 

Data slam: Osaka stays hot
She has now won 20 consecutive matches since losing while on Fed Cup duty for Japan last February. A 21st successive victory would yield a fourth slam triumph.

WINNERS/UNFORCED ERRORS
Williams – 12/24
Osaka – 20/21

ACES/DOUBLE FAULTS
Williams – 3/1
Osaka – 6/8

BREAK POINTS WON
Williams – 2/7
Osaka – 4/4

Jennifer Brady believes a two-week hard quarantine upon arriving in Australia helped her make a run to the semi-finals at Melbourne Park.

As one of the 72 Australian Open entrants that had potentially been exposed to COVID-19 on chartered flights to Melbourne, Brady was forced to stay in a hotel room for a fortnight ahead of the first grand slam of the year.

However, the 25-year-old booked her place in the final four on Wednesday by coming from behind to defeat Jessica Pegula 4-6 6-2 6-1 in an hour and 40 minutes on Rod Laver Arena.

While some players voiced their displeasure with the conditions they were faced with in self-isolation, Brady felt the period served her well.

"I was pretty much going non-stop since June of last year. I was playing World TeamTennis, then played tournaments in the US, then went over to Europe and was training in Europe till December," said Brady.

"I didn't have any weeks off. Mentally I was feeling a little bit fried, to be honest. I think I used that two weeks to kind of reset mentally and also physically, just give myself, my mind, my body a little bit of a rest.

"I would say I didn't really have high expectations on myself to do well. I came out of the quarantine, and then we were lucky enough to have a separate tournament for us who were in the hard lockdown. I was lucky to get a couple matches in there before starting here in the Australian Open."

The 22nd seed will take on Karolina Muchova in the last four, the Czech having stunned world number one Ash Barty earlier in the day. In the other half of the draw, Serena Williams will take on Naomi Osaka.

Brady hopes to get an opportunity to challenge herself against 39-year-old veteran Williams, who is chasing a record-equalling 24th major singles title.

"I think just being in the same draw as Serena is obviously... when she retires, if she retires, it's going to be something I'll be extremely grateful for. I hope I get to play her before she retires," said Brady.

"Yeah, I think she's the G.O.A.T. She's the greatest of all time and definitely will be the greatest of all time."

Brady made her first grand slam semi-final appearance at last year's US Open, when Williams and Osaka were also in the final four.

She suffered a three-set loss to Osaka on that occasion, but she is pleased to be performing on a par with the Japanese and Williams.

"I think it says a lot. They're obviously great, great tennis players, champions of the sport. To be categorised in the same group as them, I'll take that as an honour," said Brady.

"I think it's a huge achievement for me to make the semi-finals here. I look to make the finals, so we'll see."

Only Muchova stands between Brady and a first major final and fans will be able to attend after lockdown was lifted in Victoria, with a crowd of 7,477 – approximately 50 per cent capacity – allowed for each session.

Brady said of her next opponent: "She's crafty. She looks to move forward, has an all-court game. She's really athletic.

"I hope it will be a good, competitive match. Yeah, I'm looking forward to it."

Serena Williams admitted it felt like stepping back in time as her movement and power came together to overwhelm Simona Halep at the Australian Open.

It had been just over 18 months since Halep destroyed Williams in the Wimbledon final, and with the American great approaching her 40th birthday, prospects of a 24th grand slam title have appeared to fade.

Into the conversation on Tuesday strolled a revitalised Williams, a woman who has been proving a point and defying expectation for coming up to a quarter of a century.

Williams is simply not having it that her days as a winner might be over, which is why she and coach Patrick Mouratoglou are always seeking marginal gains.

Dogged by an Achilles injury since the US Open last September, Williams feels over that, and a 6-3 6-3 quarter-final win over Halep attested to that being the case.

More than that, though, Williams noticed the years fall away as she dashed around the court, thumping groundstrokes with abundant power and often plenty of precision.

Speaking of the movement returning, Williams said: "It was something that Patrick and I did discuss. I just wasn't able to incorporate it as much as I would have liked to.

"But once I was able to get on the court, I was able to incorporate it as much as I could. Movement has always been one of my strengths, and so it's actually more natural for me to move than for me not. So it was just kind of, like, 'Oh, that's how I used to move', so it's pretty good.

"I'm happy that I'm doing that again and that I put it back into my game. I think I was more focused on other things and not focused on something that is actually a strength of mine, has always been a strength of mine, and I had to refocus on that."

She faces Naomi Osaka next for a place in the final. It reads like a match-up of an all-time great against a player who could over time join her in that pantheon.

Osaka is pursuing a fourth grand slam title, while Williams wants the 24th as much as she craved the first, given it would move her alongside Margaret Court at the top of the all-time list.

The veteran American's most recent slam title came while pregnant in Australia four years ago, with Williams dealt four final defeats since, including a notable one to Osaka at the 2018 US Open.

If Osaka was watching Williams on Tuesday, as she surely was, the Japanese player could have only been impressed.

When asked about how she was matching and often out-matching Halep even in the longest rallies, Williams paused to consider when she was last able to boss such exchanges.

"It's definitely been a minute. It's been a long minute," she said with a smile. "I think 19... 1926, the summer of 1926 I think was the last time I felt that.

"But I'm good at rallying and I have to embrace the things I'm good at. I'm good at playing power, I'm good at hitting a hundred balls.

"That's one thing that's unique about me that I just need to kind of accept and embrace and just be good at both."

Williams and Osaka may have a crowd on Thursday for the semi-final, or they may not. Melbourne remains in lockdown but spectators could be back on Rod Laver Arena for the clash of two of the sport's biggest personalities.

Addressing that prospect, Williams indicated she would have mixed emotions.

"I love having the people there, obviously. But at the same time, it's kind of nice to not have, like ... more pressure when there is people in the stands," Williams said.

"So I think either way it's really a win-win situation. That's kind of how I look at it."

Fast-footed on the court, quick to sidestep off it, Williams is convinced she can push Osaka hard, perhaps heartened by a narrow win when they met in an exhibition match in Adelaide last month.

"I've got to keep going. Obviously I have an incredible opponent to play, so it would be nice to hopefully keep raising the level of my game. I'm going to have to," Williams said.

Halep said Williams "was stronger in the important moments", and she too noticed her opponent showing something near vintage form.

"Yeah, she's moving better and she hits strong," Halep added. "I feel like she's in a good shape now. She has a really good game. Always did..."

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