Serena’s latest loss sparks more questions about her future, but not about her legacy

As she made her method off the court docket Thursday at Rod Laver Arena, Serena Williams stopped for a second because the recently returned crowd stood and showered her with applause. She raised her left arm to wave earlier than transferring her hand over her coronary heart, as if to allow them to know the sensation was mutual. She paused for a second, soaked within the ovation just like the Melbourne late-summer sunshine, and waved once more earlier than disappearing into the tunnel.

Her run on the 2021 Australian Open was over, led to straight units within the semifinals by her inheritor obvious, Naomi Osaka. And then, the questions began … on tv, social media and perhaps even from your personal sofa: Was the match all that was over?

Less than an hour later, whereas sitting in entrance of dozens of members of the media in particular person and others all over the world on computer systems, Williams was requested if the on-court second was a goodbye, of kinds.

“I don’t know,” she mentioned in her information convention. “If I ever say farewell, I wouldn’t tell anyone.”

She smiled, but it light shortly. As the following reporter began to ask an innocuous query across the uncharacteristic quantity of unforced errors Williams had within the match, she tried to battle again tears by ingesting water, wanting down or shielding her eyes with her visor. Her voice cracked when she began to reply.

“I don’t know,” she mentioned, earlier than abruptly standing up and stating, “I’m done.”

Williams was gone once more, abandoning more questions than solutions.

While Williams herself has given no concrete indication of an impending retirement, the 39-year-old’s time within the sport is inevitably nearing some type of finish. And whether or not this really was the final time we see Williams on the Australian Open or if she performs for a number of more years, the game is healthier due to her, as evidenced partially by Osaka herself.

It appeared like the whole lot was coming collectively for Williams this fortnight. She had been taking part in arguably her finest tennis since coming back from maternity depart in 2018 and was heading into the match injury-free, having recovered from a lingering Achilles tendon harm, which had compelled her to withdraw on the pandemic-delayed French Open in September.

Williams held off the highly effective Aryna Sabalenka in three units within the fourth spherical in Melbourne. She had dismantled World No. 2 Simona Halep, who had defeated Williams within the 2019 Wimbledon closing, within the quarterfinals.

Having gained seven titles in Melbourne — together with her most up-to-date in 2017 whereas pregnant with her daughter, Olympia — the town and match maintain a particular place in Williams’ coronary heart, and it appeared like the right place to make historical past. The winner of 23 main titles, she has been one away from tying Margaret Court’s long-standing report since that 2018 return and has come oh-so-close — reaching 4 Grand Slam finals and two semifinals throughout that span.

For this latest alternative, Williams needed to once more get previous Osaka. The 23-year-old had gained their earlier main assembly of their well-known 2018 US Open closing, and it was serendipitous for Williams to have one other likelihood towards Osaka with a lot on the road. In a battle of the Greatest of All Time towards the Greatest of Right Now, Williams needed to show she was nonetheless each.

But Osaka out Serena-ed Serena, merely higher in all of the methods Williams has for therefore lengthy dominated tennis. Osaka had six aces (to Williams’ three) and an 85% first-serve win charge, gained all 4 of her break factors and recorded 20 blistering winners. After a nerve-filled opening two video games, the place she struggled with her ball toss, Osaka by no means once more opened the door for Williams.

Osaka superior to her fourth main closing, the place she is going to tackle American Jennifer Brady and look to enhance to an ideal 4-0 when taking part in on the largest stage. Since her first win on the 2018 US Open, Osaka — representing Japan but raised and primarily based within the United States — has risen up the ranks and turn into one of the vital seen athletes on the earth. Like so many, she has her American counterpart Williams to thank for that.

Osaka’s father now considerably famously began her and her sister in tennis because of the success of Williams and her sister Venus. He adopted the blueprint set by Richard Williams and put rackets into the arms of his two younger daughters.

“My young aspirations owe so much to Serena and Venus,” Osaka wrote in a column for The Telegraph final month. “Without these trailblazers, there could be no Naomi, no Coco [Gauff], no Sloane [Stephens], no Madison [Keys]. Everything we did was inspired by them, and my sister and I would dream about one day playing them in a Grand Slam final.”

The Williams sisters’ success motivated many to play a sport they may not have in any other case thought-about. At the 2020 US Open, there were a record 12 Black women, almost 10% of the sphere, within the singles draw. Teenager Robin Montgomery was among the many group, and he or she did not hesitate in discussing the affect the sisters’ had on her life when speaking to ESPN earlier than the match.

“Of course, Serena and Venus have been my role models since I was young,” she mentioned. “My goal is to have the chance to inspire the younger generations the way Serena and Venus were able to inspire my generation and so many other generations.”

Throughout her storied profession, Serena Williams has been a lot more than “just” a tennis participant. She is a single-named popular culture icon, celebrated businesswoman, frequent journal cowl story star and highly effective advocate for racial and gender equality. Osaka has adopted the trail Williams paved, whereas discovering her personal voice and identification.

Williams’ legacy is about far more than trophies and data and aces, though these have been spectacular. It ought to hardly be stunning once we watch Osaka focus on gender equality throughout a postmatch information convention, as she did Thursday; she is not afraid to take a stand, as a result of she has seen it been completed numerous instances earlier than.

Osaka will look so as to add to her trophy case on Saturday as she vies for her fourth profession Grand Slam title. Williams should look forward to her subsequent likelihood to win one other, if she plans on persevering with to play. Williams took to Instagram later on Thursday, posting an image of herself sporting certainly one of her signature Nike T-shirts and standing with her arms outstretched alongside a observe to the Australian followers.

“I am so honored to be able to play in front of you all,” a part of her submit mentioned. “Your support — your cheers, I only wish I could have done better for you today. I am forever in debt and grateful to each and every single one of you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I adore you.”

Many will undoubtedly speculate about the submit and Thursday’s occasions, but it is going to be as much as Williams alone to resolve when the time has come to stroll away. She more than deserves that. But when requested about the eventual finish of Williams’ legendary profession, Osaka appeared to talk for all of Williams’ followers.

“It’s kind of sad when you say it like that because, for me, I want her to play forever,” she mentioned. “That’s the little kid in me.”

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