Let’s not misinterpret why Serena Williams was crying. It wasn’t because reporters were pushing her toward retirement with cold questions as she sat glumly, four years since her last Grand Slam title, wearing a diamond necklace that recognized her as “QUEEN.”
No, she was breaking down and abruptly leaving the news conference in Melbourne because she no longer can be QUEEN.
It’s only a winnable game, this business of going out on one’s own terms, if obstacles aren’t clogging the legacy train. Tom Brady still hasn’t encountered an impediment to winning Super Bowls, but Williams, nearing 40, is trapped in an unfulfilling end game dominated by a younger and, somehow, potentially better version of herself. The new badass of women’s tennis, Naomi Osaka, already is 4-for-4 in major finals at just 23 after winning the Australian Open — which happens to be the number of Slam titles that Williams has been stuck on forever, one shy of the sport’s all-time record. Eerily, 23 also was the uniform number of Michael Jordan, another legend who didn’t realize it was time to go before it was too late.
“If I ever say farewell,” she said, “I wouldn’t tell anyone.”
She won’t have to say a word. It’s already clear how this story ends, the succession to her throne already established.
We needn’t prosecute Williams if she wants to march on in her one-legged catsuit, in awkward pursuit of one or two more trophies. It’s her life, not ours. But the tears provide evidence of her pain, a burden that is harder to watch as Osaka assumes control with an impenetrable perspective for one so young. Have you listened to her speak? She exudes traces of Zen, having overcome her own tears when she crumbled emotionally two years ago at Wimbledon, no longer having fun after ascending to No. 1 in the world. Tennis is known for breaking phenoms, and Osaka could have cracked following the moment that changed the sport forever, when she won her first U.S. Open amid boos as Williams infamously melted down in warfare with a chair ump doing his job. Born in Japan to a Japanese mother and Haitian father, Osaka grew up on Long Island and in Florida, yet she was treated like an outsider that day by boorish New Yorkers. Who was she to disrupt Queen Serena?
“Honestly, for me, when everything happened in New York, I got really scared, because I felt like it put me into this light that I’ve never been in before,” she said.
Instead of fading away, Osaka found peace — and, after two coaching changes and 12 subsequent losses, a keeper in Wim Fissette, who devised a plan that refined her pulverizing serve and groundstrokes. She also matured into womanhood and embraced the lessons of 2020, the horrors of COVID-19 mixed with racial unrest, wearing seven different masks with names of Black police brutality victims during her U.S. Open matches. When she arrived in Australia and had to quarantine in a hotel with other contestants, she didn’t complain like the planet’s top male player, the insufferable Novak Djokovic. She simply stayed in her room and tried not to binge-eat while plotting how to use the pandemic to her advantage.
The greats have done precisely that.
Brady. LeBron. Naomi.
“I think the thing that I’m most proud of is now how mentally strong I’ve become,” Osaka said. “I used to be really up and down. For me, I had a lot of doubts in myself. But I think the quarantine process and seeing everything that’s going on in the world — for me, it put a lot into perspective. I used to weigh my entire existence on if I won or lost a tennis match. That’s just not how I feel anymore.”
She sounds like she’s on a couch with a therapist. Except, Osaka is winning the inner conflict with her soul. “What I’ve learned on and off the court is it’s OK to not be sure about yourself,” she said. “For me, I feel like I’ve always forced myself to, like, be `strong’ or whatever. I think if you’re not feeling OK, it’s OK to not feel OK. You have to sort of go within yourself and figure things out in a way.”
But as long as she’s out there on a court — whipping forehands and making endorsement fortunes like no one since, well, Serena — Osaka sees no point in wasting time. “I have this mentality that people don’t remember the runners-up,” she said. “You might, but the winner’s name is the one that’s engraved.” If that approach sounds familiar, she reminded us of her muse by wearing a Kobe Bryant jersey to a news conference, as she does in other defining moments. “I truly think it gives me strength,” she said.
So how is Williams supposed to overcome this hurricane? She can’t. Despite claims of being lighter on her feet after an offseason of training, she simply couldn’t move at times as Osaka’s strokemaking ran her from side to side. With her unforced errors climbing toward 24, she lost focus and faith, screaming after a missed forehand, “Make a shot!” We forget, in witnessing her machine-like grip on her craft for two decades, that Williams experienced what she called life-threatening complications during her 2017 pregnancy, and that she left the tour to gather herself. When she returned, there was Osaka, who had idolized Serena and aspired to become the same force.
Now, it’s a matter of when Williams realizes she can’t get to 24 as Osaka is collecting all the Slams. She is a human being who has suffered injuries for three years — knees, a left Achilles, a pectoral muscle, circulation issues in her legs and feet — and while Osaka has slipped up on the Wimbledon grass and Roland Garros clay, there’s a sense Serena no longer can seize a flaw. Having achieved so much, she understandably prefers not to end her career just shy of a goal. Djokovic, who now has 18 Slam titles and is chasing his own history (the 20 of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal), put it best when he said of himself and Williams, “When you’re chasing big things that are related to the history of the sport, obviously it has a lot of weight, a lot of pressure. And regardless of the amount of years you have played on the tour and the experience that you have, you still feel it on your shoulders.”
Yet isn’t 24 just a number when Williams long has been validated as the greatest ever in her sport? The holder of the record, Margaret Court, won the Australian Open 11 times in her native country back when elite players didn’t venture Down Under for the event. Her place atop the leaderboard is diluted, further muddled by her public anti-LGBTQ opinions — “the work of the devil,” Court has said — that have made her a detestable figure in some tennis circles. Is it possible Williams, as an advocate of gender equality, is driven to topple Court for social reasons?
Her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, says Williams doesn’t think she needs 24 as career validation. Just the other day, Serena herself said, “My life is way more than a trophy.” But another recent glimpse shows her in Miami, giving a video tour of her new home to Architectural Digest. When she reaches the trophy room, she spots a piece of runner-up hardware and says, “We’ll put that one in the trash. We don’t keep second place.”
In Melbourne, Williams didn’t even finish second. Another young American, Jennifer Brady, lost the final to Osaka in straight sets. So much was made of how Williams greeted Osaka at the end of their semifinal, with her hand over her heart, as if saying goodbye to Australia and hello to her successor’s reign. Osaka has made it clear she doesn’t want to see Williams go, owing so much to the legacy of Serena and older sister Venus, two Black girls from Compton who shunned the sport’s White establishment and were home-schooled to glory by their father. Osaka, among 12 Black women in the 2020 U.S. Open singles draw, wrote in a recent column in The Telegraph (yes, she writes her own columns): “My young aspirations owe so much to Serena and Venus. Without those trailblazers, there would be no Naomi, no Coco (Gauff), no Sloane (Stephens), no Madison (Keys). Everything we did was inspired by them.”
When asked about Serena’s future last week, Osaka grew wistful. “It’s kind of sad when you say it like that, because for me, I want her to play forever. That’s the little kid in me,” she said. “As long as Serena’s here, I think she’s the face of women’s tennis.” And make no mistake, Osaka still can be a little kid, such as when she signed a TV camera lens immediately after beating Williams. “Mari, stop sending weird images in the group chat,” she wrote, directing a message to her older sister.
But Naomi is the predominant one-name icon now, capable of winning majors as long as she wants to keep playing. Said Jen Brady: “She’s such an inspiration to us all, and what she’s doing for the game is amazing in getting the sport out there. I hope young girls at home are watching and inspired by what she’s doing.” Osaka likely won’t want to play until she’s 39, but that doesn’t mean she won’t be remembered — like Tiger Woods juxtaposed against Jack Nicklaus — as having played the best tennis ever in the female ranks.
Perhaps that realization already has tapped Williams on the brain. On Instagram, just before leaving Australia for possibly the last time as a player, she thanked local fans in a note. “I am so honored to be able to play in front of you all,” she wrote. “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.”
Hours later, after ruling the final with a serve that reached 122 mph, Osaka was saying after her 21st straight victory, “For me, I feel like every opportunity to play a Slam is an opportunity to win a Slam. So I think maybe I put that pressure on myself, but honestly, it’s working out in my favor right now.”
She was handed a pour of champagne. Not a drinker, she reluctantly took a sip and made a sour face, having been told growing up that alcohol is a no-no. “Like it’s ruining your body or your liver,” she said. “I just want to give myself an advantage for as long as I can.”
And how long might that be? “I feel like the biggest thing I want to achieve is — this is gonna sound really odd — hopefully I play long enough to play a girl that said that I was once her favorite player or something. For me, I think that’s the coolest thing that could ever happen to me. … I just think that that’s how the sport moves forward.”
Spoken like the new QUEEN, with no interest in abdicating until she says so. Let the dethroned shed the tears.