History Wins – Serena Falls

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Photo by Getty Images

Bill Simons

They say there is no great rivalry in women’s tennis.

Wrong. 

Serena, with her 23 titles, has long been fighting her fiercest foe: history. She’s like tennis’ answer to Captain Ahab. She sees Margaret Court’s record. She tastes it. She wants it. It has long weighed on her shoulders. She admits it and tries to accept it. Her coach Patrick Mouratoglou openly confided that this was the reason she came back to the circuit after giving birth.

Not surprisingly, many – from Billie Jean King to Martina Navratilova to adoring kids in middle school – are pulling for Williams. The unsparing New York writer Filip Bundy expressed a conventional wisdom: “In a perfect tennis world, Serena would already have claimed her 24th and 25th major titles, surpassing the anti-gay sourpuss, Margaret Court.”

These days the WTA has an incredibly deep field. Still, since returning from giving birth, Serena has had Slam results that have been as impressive as any. She’s reached four finals, a semi, and six quarterfinals.

But the most tantalizing prize she could gain – equaling Court’s mark of 24 Slams – has escaped her. Not that she hasn’t tried. The most compelling women athlete of this or any other era has drawn on every possible source for inspiration. Her relationships with her family, her sister and her coach are unique, her husband is supportive, Royals Prince Harry and Megan have come by to cheer. She has used athletic icons from track star FloJo to her fellow elder Tom Brady to inspire her. And, of course, fashion has been a motivation. She confided, “I knew I had an insane outfit to look good in, so that was my motivation [to come back].”

In Australia she looked trim and fit. She moved with a swiftness we hadn’t seen in years. Yes there were scares. She escaped disaster when a Russian teen, Anastasia Potapova, double-faulted six times in a critical game. She came from behind to down the powerful No. 8 Aryna Sabalenka, and then avenged a painful Wimbledon loss she’d suffered to Simona Halep.

As Serena marched to the business end of the Australian Open, all the talk was of her fitness, her movement, her defense, how at ease she was, how being a mother helped. Still, there were whispers. The enduring athlete is 39. There are so many younger, strong and eager players. Can Serena win seven matches in a row to win a Slam?

Tonight in Melbourne the answer was no.

Yes, Serena – the second oldest women’s semi-finalist in history, who was 8-0 in Aussie Open semis and was seeking to break Federer’s record of 362 Slam wins – came out on fire, while Naomi was awestruck. Osaka later confided, “[When] I was a little kid I watched her play. Just to be out there with her is a dream.” But the first couple of games were a nightmare for the Los Angeles-based star. “I was just nervous and scared,” she admitted. After all, Naomi had told us earlier, “As long as Serena is around, she is the face of women’s tennis.”

At first, Williams showed why. Taking advantage of an Osaka double fault and her groundie errors, Serena broke serve and grabbed a 2-0 lead. She could have broken again to gain a 3-0 advantage. But Osaka settled down. She finally relaxed and began to impose the greatest power strokes in the WTA. Hammering her forehand, controlling the middle of the court, forcing Serena back and creating angles, Osaka broke back and, despite her youth, began to put on a master class.

As she gained confidence, neither the heat, Serena’s will or the small but vocal pro-Williams crowd seemed to phase Osaka who is 16 years younger than Serena. The GOAT, who didn’t hit a single forehand winner in the first set, looked to the sky as if to ask the tennis gods to intervene.  

But Osaka, powerful and playing within herself, displayed her now familiar calm ferocity. She grabbed the first set 6-3, broke early in the second set and raced off to a 4-2 lead. Then the kid showed she was human. She briefly blinked and played a loose game. Serena broke back to even the second set 4-4. For a fleeting moment it seemed we might have a match on our hands. 

Then Osaka shook off her misstep and imposed her will. She broke Serena at love and quickly claimed an almost surgical 6-3, 6-4 win.

She approached the net and nodded twice in deference to the great champion. After the two most famous women athletes in the world exchanged a heartfelt embrace, all eyes turned to the singular Serena. She touched her heart and offered a poignant wave to the crowd. Her countless admirers wondered if that was a kind of goodbye. Would we ever see Serena again on court in Melbourne?

When asked if that was indeed a farewell gesture, Williams replied, “I don’t know. The Aussie crowd is so amazing, so it was nice to see…I don’t know. If I ever say farewell, I wouldn’t tell anyone [smiling]. So…”

Once again the oh-so-appealing Osaka had raced through a Slam match against Serena without dropping a set. And, more importantly, Williams’ greatest rival, history, remained unmoved. Serena’s brave quest had faltered once again. Reflecting on her errors of the day, she teared up and told the media “I’m done.” After all, history remains for Serena one fierce, uncaring and mysterious foe.

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