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Preview: Naomi Osaka  v Serena Williams 
With crowds set to return to the Australian Open, the scene is set for another chapter in Serena Williams’ bid to win that elusive 24th major title, when she faces Naomi Osaka once more. Against Simona Halep, Williams’ movement was much improved, her defence was rock-solid and there was little Halep could do, even being up by a break twice in the second set and pegged back each time.
Meanwhile Osaka’s toughest match-up was against last year’s Australian Open finalist Garbiñe Muguruza but was very much in control of the highly anticipated encounter with Hsieh Su-Wei.
One of the elements that has stood out this year is Williams’ movement, and this is borne out with better return stats although Osaka is sharper at both converting her break-point chances and saving those against her. There is very little between then in terms of total points won.
For years, Williams game has been characterised by both her powerful serve and return of serve, coupled with powerful groundstrokes from the baseline. Her doubles prowess also stands her in good stead as a strong volleyer and while she might have joked about coming in behind her serve this year, she is very deft at the net with great feel.
Osaka’s aggressive baseline game has of course been a tough match for Williams and can most definitely match her stroke for stroke in serve and groundstroke power.
Williams has worked hard on her movement and it has paid off in matches where she has moved well in long rallies and her defence has been so much better than we have seen of late. There also has to be a change in mindset – long gone are the days when players were intimidated by Williams long before they walked out on court.
Osaka proved that although she admired Williams, when it came to holding her own in the US Open final, she was not afraid of going toe-to-toe with Williams, but she is vastly improved in several aspects of her own game too. Osaka has steadied the ship in terms of her mental approach and will not be easily intimidated.
There is no doubt that Williams will have to be sharp in every aspect of her game – she cannot afford to have a slow start and she will need to keep the pressure on Osaka. If the 2019 champion has a slow start, then Williams might have a chance, but it should shape up to be a tough, tight match.
Prediction: Williams in three sets.
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