When she left the court afterwards a massive semi-final defeat by Naomi OsakaSerena Williams whirled around, took a long look at the Rod Laver Arena, and put her hand on her heart. It was the kind of slow, heartfelt goodbye that naturally leads to some questions when a tennis player is 39 and sees his rivals getting younger, faster, fitter, and more confident.
After another defeat late in a Grand Slam to a young superstar, each a little less competitive than the other, Williams is running out of options and time to secure another major title.
And she knows.
If we’re honest Williams’ 6-3, 6-4 loss to Osaka There was no torchlight transition in the semifinals of the Australian Open, as this happened before some Grand Slams. The important question is whether Williams still believes she can win these tournaments, whether she really believes she can get through not just Osaka but all the other great young players you have to beat to win the titles.
Because if Serena doesn’t believe that anymore, what’s the point of being out there? This is the dilemma that every great tennis player of all time faces. He plays a sport that is not only brutal to the body, but also requires immense dedication to stay at the highest level.
With 23 Grand Slam titles, she is not about to reach quarter-finals or semi-finals. She tries to win one of four tournaments every year. And when this is no longer a realistic option, the level of sacrifice required as the body ages does not seem worthwhile.
Because of this, the questions about retirement, as uncomfortable as they may be, are relevant after such games. And Williams didn’t exactly shut them down in their post-game press conference.
When asked about her long court exit, and if it possibly indicated that this was her last appearance at the Australian Open, Williams smiled and said, “I don’t know, if I ever say goodbye I wouldn’t tell anyone. ”
But then, on a follow-up question about all of the casual mistakes she’d made against Osaka, Williams took a sip of water and choked, started crying, said “I’m done” and abruptly walked out of the room.
She knows. We all know.
That doesn’t mean Williams can’t put together another run. The French Open with slower conditions and long rallies will be difficult for them as they have been throughout their careers. It was a snakebite at the US Open, and Osaka’s dominance on hard courts makes the prospect of winning in New York even more difficult. Wimbledon, where she has won seven times, creates conditions that help Serena to succeed.
But because of that, the loss to Osaka will burn for a while. Williams got into this tournament healthy and fit and the faster pace on the court in Australia played to their advantage. The setup was right there and Osaka was nervous and unpredictable enough early in the game for Williams to steal the first set. Then who knows?
But Williams failed to take full advantage of that early opportunity, and Osaka knocked her off. Rally after rally, ground blow for ground blow, Osaka put Williams in the defensive position and then hit body punches that made arguably the greatest player of all time look rushed and old and ineffective.
That is the natural order of things. This is supposed to happen when there is an age difference of 16 years between players at the highest level in the sport.
Williams has done an incredible job of fending off the inevitable for as long as possible and giving themselves chances at Grand Slams long after other players of their generation fell away and retired.
The age of 30 used to be a dividing line in tennis. Steffi Graf won her last Grand Slam at 29 and called it finished because her body collapsed and the physical cost of returning was no longer worth it. Chris Evert won her last major at 31, regularly finished the slam final and got out at 34. Martina Navratilova reached one last Wimbledon final at 37 and was basically a single player after that.
In this sense, Williams has completely changed the paradigm of the possible. And the way she played in Australia, she can probably do the second week of the Grand Slams for a few more years if she really wants to keep working.
But does she do that?
Only Williams knows that. Although she already holds the Open Era record, Grand Slam No. 24 remains enticing. But when returns are falling and the sacrifice is no longer worth it, you can understand why Thursday felt a bit like a goodbye.
Williams will take her at her word and never say out loud that 2021 is a farewell tour. But how she reacted to that loss, let’s just say it’s time to enjoy every moment she is seen on the pitch.