Serena Williams waved as the adulation of the Australian Open crowd came from all four corners of the court, and though she lingered on the spot only for a second, it felt like a goodbye. Defeated by world number three Naomi Osaka 6-3, 6-4 in the semi-finals in Melbourne overnight, this was the American’s eleventh attempt to draw equal a record 24th grand slam singles title. Having clinched her 23rd major in Australia four years ago, Margaret Court’s tally has continued to evade Williams since.
“We can't wait to see you back here next year,” wrote the tournament’s official page on Twitter following her loss but fans in the replies doubted she’ll return. They sensed this was her saying her final goodbyes to Oz.
Then the flames of speculation were stoked by Serena herself. Speaking at her post-match press conference, she became visibly emotional. She was asked if she may have played at Melbourne Park for a final time. “If I ever say farewell I wouldn’t tell anyone,” she said, looking down and wiping the surface in front of her before looking up and giving a wry smile and little laugh. That in itself was telling for those still wondering.
Later a question was put to her about unforced errors she had made against Osaka. She drank from her bottle as the reporter asked if it was a bad day at the office, put it back in her bag, exhaled with her head down, composed herself and clasped her hands together. Looking up, she shook her head reluctantly almost before admitting, “I don’t know, I’m done.” With that, she upped and left, tears in her eyes.
Could she call it quits at the end of the season? Of course, playing an elite level sport is challenging and draining, especially when you are hunting records and time is ticking down. To reach the semi-finals but miss out on the final must be immensely difficult. Speculation will swell now until Serena makes her decision.
It feels like a big moment for a generation of tennis lovers. Andy Murray, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal are all in the autumns and winters of their careers too. We know the end of a stunning tennis era is coming, a group of talents, so good there are no more superlatives left to describe them, will hang up their rackets sooner rather than later, but seeing Williams ponder on court has made it feel all the more real. They can’t last forever.
Saying so long with no spectators due to a global pandemic would have been cruel for both the player and her loyal followers. If this was goodbye, how good for Serena that she could bid farewell to her Aussie fans in a packed out arena.