Serena Williams’ tearful press conference after losing to a dominant Naomi Osaka in the Australian Open semis foretold so much about the state of women’s tennis.
Serena Williams placed her hand on her heart after her customary twirl that spoke volumes of where she is emotionally in the game.
Williams, 39, has defined excellence in sport her entire career, holding the record for the most single grand slams (male or female) of any player in the Open Era. Having won her last grand slam while pregnant with her daughter, Olympia—the 2017 Australian Open—she has further defied expectations by not only returning to the sport she has helped elevate, but making four grand slam finals since.
It’s only getting harder
But achieving a 24th grand slam has eluded her. The biggest impediment to her ability to equal Margaret Court’s total tally of 24 majors has been the remarkable player who defeated her in the semis on Wednesday, Naomi Osaka.
It’s no coincidence that Serena’s inability to convert her finals into further slam glory has been the Japanese player’s gain: Osaka is on the cusp of possibly winning her fourth major and her second Australian Open final. It’s no coincidence that Serena’s frustrating efforts in finals have paved the way for Osaka to add to her own growing silverware haul.
If Serena’s been disappointed in slam finals, Osaka can sleep easy for Saturday’s final against Jen Brady: Osaka is 3-3 in finals. When it comes to confidence on the big stage, the three-time slam champion has it in spades.
Naomi Osaka’s growing in stature and the players are getting tougher
It also doesn’t help that Naomi Osaka’s grand achievements have all come on hard courts: earning a second Australian Open would equal her two U.S. Open wins.
Williams is also a hard-court specialist and therein lies the problem. But it’s not only Osaka’s gains, the 23-time slam champion has come up against other hungry players such as Bianca Andreescu (in the 2019 U.S. Open), who are all chomping at the bit for tennis glory.
Every tournament, every year, hell, every match is becoming more and more difficult, and judging from the tearful press conference, it’s becoming harder and harder for Serena to fight the inevitable.
If Naomi Osaka is an obstacle now, getting past her will only increase in difficulty. However, there’s nothing but love between the two incredible players.
“It’s always an honor playing her,” Osaka said post-match, via The Guardian. “I didn’t want to go out without trying my best.”
There will never another Serena
Serena’s been a hero to Osaka, and if there’s a tennis player to take over her mantle, it would seem that the 23-year-old is just the individual to do that. The 2019 AO winner just clocked in her 20th successive win over players with her victory over Serena Williams, having not lost to another player since last year’s Australian Open, although she only played a few tournaments due to the coronavirus pandemic last year.
Not only fearless on the court, Naomi Osaka has also demonstrated powerful leadership off the court as well, wearing masks with the names of those who died at the hands of police brutality at last year’s U.S. Open.
A popular sports personality, Osaka is also a highly marketable one as well. She became the highest paid female athlete of all time, surpassing Serena’s almost $29M in endorsements, with Osaka’s $34M in endorsements (and $37.4M in total earnings), placing her in the Top 10 of highest paid athletes based on endorsements alone. Just last month, she added a new ambassador deal with Louis Vuitton.
Serena’s prospects and legacy
What does all this mean for Williams’s future? That is a conversation that only the great sports icon can have with herself. As she indicated in her press conference, her retirement plans are for herself and herself alone.
“I don’t know, if I ever say farewell, I wouldn’t tell anyone,” said the seven-time AO winner, according to MSN.
The next grand slam is the French, Serena’s least successful. After that, Wimbledon, where she’s earned as many titles as she had at the Australian (7).
Even if this is the end—or if it isn’t—her legacy is unquestionably the greatest the women’s game has every seen. She holds 23 grand slams, 14 doubles majors, four gold medals in singles and doubles, and she’s the only tennis player to have won in four separate decades. There are legends and then there is Serena, the legend.
“But I think when you see a larger picture for her and everything that who she is, what she stands for on and off the court,” said Novak Djokovic in his press conference, in another MSN article. “She’s one of the greatest ever… athletes, not just tennis player.”
Having gotten to the semis at Melbourne means that Serena is far from a diminished force. Whatever Serena’s decision is will be done on her own terms. And we wouldn’t expect anything less.