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Serena Williams produced a performance of the highest quality to return to the Australian Open semi-final for the first time since her last grand slam triumph there in 2017, outplaying the second seed, Simona Halep, to win 6-3, 6-3. She will next face Naomi Osaka in Thursday’s semi-final.

A year and a half since Halep played the match of her life on her worst surface to eviscerate Williams with the loss of just four games in the 2019 Wimbledon final, a first sign this would not play out in the same manner came early on. In the first point of Halep’s opening service game, she could only watch helplessly as her 130km/h second serve exploded back across the net in the form of a 154km/h Williams forehand crosscourt return winner.

The match, however, was not won only by the quality of Williams’ ball-striking. The defining feature was the No 10 seed’s movement, a strong area of her game that has understandably been inconsistent since returning to the sport after giving birth to her daughter. After clear improvements in 2020, she has started the new season breezing across the court through the force of her foot speed.

In their most recent clashes, Halep’s 6-2, 6-2 victory at Wimbledon 2019 and even Williams’ tough three-set win earlier that year in Melbourne, few players have exposed Williams’ movement like Halep. When Williams’ serve has not been at its blistering best, Halep has been able to move her across the baseline before imposing her own game.

On Tuesday, Williams served relatively poorly again but she shrugged that off and won by the strength of her game in all other categories. Not only was Williams able to retrieve more balls and force errors from Halep, but being able to remain in longer exchanges meant she was naturally more comfortable on the ball.

She was in no rush whatsoever, calmly waiting for the right shot to attack rather than assuming more risk by trying to end the point at the first opportunity. As well as crunching forehand winners from all parts of the court, Williams offered bursts of creativity, dragging Halep about with sharp angles.

If there was any criticism of Halep, who committed just four unforced errors in the opening set, it was of her poor serving when she took the lead in the second. It was her biggest opportunity to press home an advantage but she offered too many second serves and Williams immediately broke back.

A long deuce game ensued with the score tied at 3-3 in the second set and it ended with the players’ roles briefly reversed. While Halep took control of the points, desperately trying to keep hold of her serve, Williams was reduced to scrambling, living off defensive forehand slices and lunging for every ball. Williams clinched the definitive break not with a nuclear forehand, but after consecutive, breathless 20- and 16-stroke rallies.

“Movement has always been one of my strengths, and so it’s actually more natural for me to move than for me not to. So it was just kind of like, ‘Oh, that’s how I used to move,’ so it’s pretty good,” said Williams.

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“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.”

Williams has now reached her 40th grand slam semi-final and despite much discussion about her demise she has won six of her last eight matches against top-10 opponents. By improving an essential part of her game, she has given herself a bigger chance in this tournament and beyond.

After Osaka’s 6-2, 6-2 win over Hsieh Su-wei earlier in the day, Thursday’s meeting between the pair will mark their first at a grand slam since their dramatic 2018 US Open final, where Osaka clinched the first of her three grand slam titles. Asked whether the pair have had closure, and their relationship off the court, Williams shrugged.

“Well, I think we both have had closure, and we have reached out to each other,” she said. “Off the court, it’s hard. She’s a great competitor and she’s a cool cat.”

Osaka used her experience of previous struggles to swiftly dispatch Hsieh and seal her place in the semi-finals. The comprehensive win over an unorthodox opponent provided a stark contrast to her victory over the same player en route to the title in 2019, when she had been forced to rally from a set and a break behind.

And her 66-minute success will also came as a welcome relief after the tumult of the previous round, when she saved two match points before squeezing past Garbiñe Muguruza. Osaka said in her on-court interview: “I’m really happy with how I played – every time I play her it’s such a battle and despite the score it was another battle for me.

“It makes me a bit more calm, just knowing that even though my back was severely against the wall I still had opportunities. Even today when I had two match points and she saved them both, normally I feel like I would have panicked but today I was pretty calm.”