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Serena Williams and the Battle Against Time

The end may not be here for the 23-time Grand Slam champion, but as Thursday’s Australian Open loss to Naomi Osaka shows, every moment now carries added significance

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The closing moments of Serena Williams’s post-match press conference at the Australian Open went viral on Thursday, but the total scene bears repeating. Williams lost to Naomi Osaka, the 23-year-old three-time major champion in straight sets and was speaking to a gaggle of reporters. Someone asked about how she left the court: Before heading to the locker room Williams gave a twirl to the crowd and covered her heart with her hand. She paused. She looked up into the stands, soaking in the moment. Was she saying farewell for good?

“I don’t know,” she told the press. “If I ever say farewell, I wouldn’t tell anyone.”

She smiled for a second and her face dropped. Her eyes darted up toward the brim of her visor and she shifted in her seat. She listened to the next question, began to answer it, then looked down and started to cry. She said, “I’m done,” and left the podium. And then, she was gone.

This might not mean all that much, but it also might mean everything. The greatest player to ever pick up a racket could have just been having a bad day. Her match against Osaka, in the semifinals on Thursday morning in Melbourne, was understandably heartbreaking. She had 24 unforced errors (compared to Osaka’s 21) and won only 65 percent of her first serves (compared to Osaka’s 85 percent). Williams got off to a 2-0 lead in the first set, with a chance to break Osaka once more, but from that high point on she was cast into a typhoon of slipups, almosts, and not-quites. Out of the seven break points that Williams forced in the match, she converted only two of them (Osaka went 4-for-4). Williams had her chance, missed it, and was battered accordingly. Anguish under such circumstances is not only expected, but excused.

But after 26 years and 23 major titles (one short of Margaret Court’s dubious record made up mostly of titles she won before the Open Era), the post-match tears take on an added meaning. The sports world is waiting for her to capture that final victory, hoping to give her the coronation that the titans always seem to get. Except her pursuit of this ultimate achievement—the quest for title no. 24—has morphed into something distinct from any other chase before it and is, as such, all the more elusive.

It took only 24 minutes before the announcers mentioned her daughter, Alexis Olympia, on Thursday’s broadcast. It’s part of a reflex that the sports-industrial complex seems incapable of avoiding. Not just a champion, a mom. A mother’s quest. A mother’s will. It’s positioned as a compliment, but it is not benign. She is not an inherently different being because she now raises a child. To suggest as much insinuates her baby is the ultimate reason for the results of her play.

Body-shaming has always been a staple of the criticisms lodged against Williams, but the tenor has shifted since she gave birth in 2017. Most recently Madrid Open director Ion Tiriac called on Williams in January to quit: “At this age and the weight she is now, she does not move as easily as she did 15 years ago,” he said. “If she had a little decency, she would retire.” For so long, Williams had avoided questions of aging, playing well deep into her 30s. What is strange now is how, at 39, the championing of her motherhood intertwines with the criticism she endures about its effects on her game. Nike, ESPN, and Gatorade each herald her athlete-mom image, while men like Tiriac suggest that her body, as such, is unfit for the game. It starts to feel a bit cyclical; every high-profile match an onslaught where Williams falls apart and then puts herself back together—because that’s what mothers do—just for the chance to be shattered once more and told, by some, that it is time to leave.

One would think that pressure would ultimately foil her, but on Thursday, it was Osaka who was the breaker. It does not take an expert to see that she used Williams’s bag of tricks against her. Osaka’s serve was blistering, her movements quick, and her returns precise. Facing another opponent Williams may have held on after losing her grip; she could have clawed back. But against Osaka’s barrages—rips, daggers, a steely resolve—there was nothing she could do. It felt how it used to feel when Williams was once untouchable. Except now, Osaka will be the one looking to add to her legend in Saturday’s finals, where she’ll meet Jennifer Brady and go for her fourth Grand Slam title.

The match was difficult to watch without thinking how maddening it must have been to Williams. For viewers, an anxiety crescendos beneath each defeat—as if each time she takes the court and doesn’t leave with a victory a tragedy in motion. But Williams’s career cannot go on forever. There will be an end to the party, and memory is the only thing that will not fade. A crowning achievement is delicious, but every day that passes makes it more likely that Serena’s has already come. That’s not to say it can’t be done. Wimbledon starts in June, and there is nothing less surprising in the sport (outside of maybe Nadal at Roland Garros) than Williams holding the trophy at the All England Club. One day she will step onto the court and have no more moments left to give, but the true tragedy is missing what magic she still provides.

There was a time on Thursday, toward the end of the second set, when Williams looked like she might come back. She rocketed a return stroke and the tide seemed to be turning. Osaka double-faulted on three separate occasions. The score was even. The stadium boomed. But remember, tennis is fickle. Williams came to serve and was met by an immovable object; the comeback attempt was fleeting. Osaka broke her once more and served out the victory. But that swirl of hope—of what Williams might still be—was quite the moment. No matter how many are left.