When Serena Williams declared “I’m done” and walked out of her press conference in tears after her Australian Open semi-final defeat to Naomi Osaka, it was difficult not to read too much into that statement.
The same goes for a gesture too. Immediately after losing 6-3 6-4 to Osaka, the American walked off the Rod Lad Arena to a huge ovation and placed her hand over her heart when bidding farewell to the returning Melbourne crowd.
The defeat means the 39-year-old’s pursuit for a record-equalling 24th singles Grand Slam title goes on, and the question will now be how many more times can she suffer these devastating near-misses before she calls time on her glittering career.
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On Thursday, she departed from the press conference following a question which asked if it was simply a bad day at the office. Twelve winners and double that in unforced errors gives you that answer, but it was the two questions prior which brought on the emotions for Williams.
Q. There was a really poignant moment when you walked off the court. You put your hand over your heart. What was going through your head in that moment?
Williams: I don't know. The Aussie crowd is so amazing, so it was nice to see.
Q. Some people wondered if you were almost saying farewell.
Williams: I don't know. If I ever say farewell, I wouldn't tell anyone (smiling). So...
In her own press conference, Osaka said she would like to see Williams “play forever”, but some will now be putting two and two together – those words “I’m done” and the farewell gesture – and wondering if that time is coming sooner rather than later.
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Looking back, Williams has lost four finals since winning her 23rd slam at the Australian Open in 2017, while she has also exited at the semi-final stage twice in her hunt for No. 24.
Serena’s Grand Slam showings since 2017 Aus Open win
- 2018: R4 at French Open, Final at Wimbledon, Final at US Open
- 2019: QF at Aus Open, R3 at French Open, Final at Wimbledon, Final at US Open
- 2020: R3 at Aus Open, SF at US Open, R2 at French Open
- 2021: SF at Aus Open
Looking forward, the difficulties look the same as they have done in recent years. Iga Swiatek will be favourite to defend her French Open title, with Williams an outsider given she last won there in 2015.
For Wimbledon, the field will open up once more, particularly with the slam’s 2020 postponement offering us few insights into who the biggest grass-court danger could be.
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It means there is hope for Williams yet, while there is no telling what she could do at a potentially packed-out – although that is perhaps wishful thinking - US Open later this year.
There is cause to continue. Williams is already defying the status quo to be competing with players around half her age – Osaka was one when Williams won the French Open in 1999 – and given she reached the semi-finals in Melbourne there is every reason to believe she can continue the fight into the second week of slams for at least the next year or two.
However, just how damaging these losses are only she and her team will know. There is always one obstacle, with Williams finding herself arguably the second-best player at these tournaments and so leaving them empty-handed.
Take Osaka out of the equation and Williams could well have won this weekend. Take Angelique Kerber or Simona Halep or Bianca Andreescu or Osaka (again) out of the equation in recent years and Williams would have had at least 24 titles already.
The problem is, though, you cannot remove these players from consideration. There are no rollovers in Grand Slam tennis, and so perhaps the day Williams decides to retire will be the day she no longer feels capable of beating such calibre of opponents.
Thursday’s showing proved that is perhaps already the case, but so long as Williams can keep going this far in slams then it would be a surprise to see her give up the chase. All eyes on her gestures and words come the French Open and Wimbledon, although as she hinted, she’ll keep us guessing to the very end.
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