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Couch: Serena Is Playing Great Again, But It Is Unlikely To Matter Versus Osaka

When Serena Williams first said it, it was hard to know whether she meant it or was just trying to talk herself into something. 

“I’ve been looking at things the wrong way.’’

That’s what she said at the start of the Australian Open a week and a half ago. And it was so true. Williams has been stuck for four years at 23 major championships, one short of the record held by Margaret Court. And it has been frustrating watching her wait for someone to just hand her the record as if she were owed it. Then she would panic when that wouldn’t happen. Then she’d make excuses.

She HAD been looking at it all wrong. But you can see now that she meant it. Tennis will have its Brady-Mahomes moment tonight, though unfortunately it’s only the semifinals.

It’s the Greatest of All Time vs. the greatest of this time, Williams vs. Naomi Osaka. And while I’ll predict an Osaka win, this much is sure:

Williams is ready to win again. She has clearly been working on her fitness, footwork and conditioning. She is moving better, faster, quicker now than at any time in at least five or six years. 

And not only has she done the road work, she has also done the mental work. You don’t see panic in crunchtime anymore. She says she is no longer obsessed with the record and is thinking about the positives.

When was the last time she moved like this?

“It’s definitely been a minute, it’s been a long minute,’’ she told reporters in Melbourne. “I think 19…1926, the summer of 1926, I think, was the last time I felt that!’’

Williams cracked herself up with that. In the past four years, she has gone from an aging 35 to an old 39, while some great young players have moved in. Now, she is back to maybe 32, 33.

This is a huge and obvious difference. She is running down balls now that she hadn’t even been flinching at in years. This is what she used to look like when she was at her best. Who knew you could see her at her best again?

The only thing is, Osaka has athleticism and power too. And she’s only 23.

Osaka has won 10 straight matches in the quarterfinals or deeper in a major. She is a closer, and that includes her win over Williams in the 2018 U.S. Open final.

In that same time, Williams has fallen to pieces with the finish line in sight.

I’m just going to be honest here. The media are afraid to be critical of Williams. To do so is to subject yourself to hell. But the problem has been Williams’ superstar sense of entitlement. She would hit her amazing serve and then stand there in the middle of the court, pound balls and assume her opponents wouldn’t be able to handle it.

Usually, she was right. But that’s not enough to beat Osaka in the business end of a major. This isn’t a game of H-O-R-S-E, where you can just stand there and win with amazing shots.

She would panic on the court, behave badly and then blame the chair umpire for penalizing her for it. There was always some excuse. The best players on tour weren’t just folding under her aura anymore.

Williams was crumbling under the pressure of Court’s record, though no one considers Court to be the GOAT anyway. The only player who can even be in that argument with Williams is Steffi Graf.

Osaka has now surpassed Williams as the best-paid women’s athlete in the world. She has become a massive superstar, though the U.S. is always slow to embrace foreign athletes.

Someone asked Osaka how it feels to be the face of women’s tennis now. She said that she isn’t, that it’ll always be Williams.

The problem was that Williams seemed to agree with that. She had always been a cause for celebration. And it was getting a little disturbing to see her as a ceremonial player with no chance at actually winning a major.

This won’t take a fluke anymore. Williams crushed Simona Halep in the quarterfinals by keeping long rallies going. 

That was directly the result of Williams’ hard work and conditioning, something that has been a little inconsistent through the years. When she was younger, she could get away with it.

Now, she can’t. 

Sometimes, you see aging great athletes have the ability to find things again for a moment. They say all great fighters have one more great fight in them.

But in Williams’ case, it looks as though she might have several great fights left. This doesn’t have to be a moment. This is a rejuvenation. I wonder how many majors she might have thrown away over the past few years, but now we can all focus instead on how many more she has in her.

The mental side is still going to be tested tonight. Her longtime coach, Patrick Mouratoglou has been everywhere in the media saying that Williams isn’t actually obsessed with the record. And Williams has been saying the same thing.

LOL. It’s part of her mental training. She craves that record. But now Williams doesn’t seem to think anything is owed to her anymore. She’s here to take it. 

She’s looking at things the right way again. 

Written by Greg Couch

Greg earned the 2007 Peter Lisagor Award as the best sports columnist in the Chicagoland area for his work with the Chicago Sun-Times, where he started as a college football writer in 1997 before becoming a general columnist in 2003. He also won a Lisagor in 2016 for his commentary in RollingStone.com and The Guardian.

Couch penned articles and columns for CNN.com/Bleacher Report, AOL Fanhouse, and The Sporting News and contributed as a writer and on-air analyst for FoxSports.com and Fox Sports 1 TV. In his journalistic roles, Couch has covered the grandest stages of tennis from Wimbledon to the Olympics, among numerous national and international sporting spectacles. He also won first place awards from the U.S. Tennis Writers Association for his event coverage and column writing on the sport in 2010.

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