You think sports are filled with Tom Brady winning the Super Bowl, Michael Jordan making the last shot or Tiger Woods sinking the last putt. But the truth is, you don’t always get the fairy tale ending.
That’s about the only way to explain what happened at the Australian Open Wednesday night. Serena Williams had waited four years to win her 24th major championship and tie Margaret Court’s record. And this year, Williams, now 39 years old, arrived in so much better physical and mental shape than she has in years. She was moving faster, staying calmer.
And she went into Wednesday’s semifinal against this generation’s best player, 23-year-old Naomi Osaka. And then?
Osaka dominated Williams, winning 6-3, 6-4. She hit harder, ran faster, stayed steadier (mostly) than Williams. So Williams isn’t going to get No. 24 this time. She’s running out of chances, too.
And when she left the court, she waved to the crowd and then, uncharacteristically, stopped and put her hands to her heart. Asked in the post-match press conference if that might have been more than a goodbye for now and instead a farewell forever, Williams said:
“I don’t know. If I ever say farewell, I wouldn’t tell anyone.’’
Someone then asked what caused her loss, and whether it was just a “bad day at the office.’’ And Williams got teary-eyed, said quietly, “I’m done.’’
And she left.
So no, that’s not the way this ending was drawn up, not the mic drop that this weekend could have been. And the ESPN announcers were wondering aloud, too, whether that heart-tap had some big meaning.
“It had the feeling of more than just, `Thank you for coming out today,’ didn’t it?’’ Chris Fowler said. “Who knows what’s in her head, but that was just a little bit unusual. It had a poignance to it, didn’t it?’’
Chris Evert said, “Yes, it did. It made a statement.’’
Well, maybe so, but I didn’t see it that way. At least, I didn’t see the statement as, “Farewell forever. Thanks for the memories.’’ Like Fowler said, we don’t know what’s in Williams’ head.
But I think maybe Williams had just put so much into this tournament, into catching Court now. She had dug down, done the roadwork to find what was left inside.
She put her heart into this thing and made herself vulnerable to failure.
It was going so well the whole tournament. She beat down Simona Halep, who had beaten her badly in the 2019 Wimbledon final.
And then, just like that, it was all gone. The crowd had been strongly pulling for Williams, and that’s not always the case. I think the crowd appreciated that Williams had done all she could. And maybe Williams just touched her heart as a way of telling the fans thank you for cheering for her.
Maybe she doesn’t know yet if she’s going to come back next year, at 40. And most likely she wasn’t about to cry because she lost, but instead because she just needed an emotional release after working so hard and then trying to keep things together while Osaka dominated her in power and speed. That’s the way Williams used to dominate.
Osaka out-Serena-ed Serena.
“I felt like I was hitting well,’’ Williams said. “Even the first couple of games, I was hitting well. I had so many opportunities. I just made too many mistakes. Easy mistakes, not like I was on the run.’’
It’s true that Osaka, who has won three majors, came out nervous. She was dumping easy shots into the net, and she couldn’t get her serve in. Williams went up 2-0 and had chances to get to 3-0. That might have given her the momentum she needed to win the first set.
But Osaka won the third game and then the next four after that to advance to the final against Jennifer Brady.
And when it was over, Osaka talked about being a little girl in the stands, watching Williams: “I think, honestly, for me it’s always an honor to play her.’’
Sure, another ceremonial honor for Williams. She’s had enough of those and wanted another trophy. So. . .Disappointed? Yes. But failure?
You succeed in the process and in the fight. Williams spent the past few years not getting herself fully ready to win. That was failure. This time, she was ready. She is ready to win more now, too. If she shows up like this at Wimbledon, she’ll have a chance.
Williams should be proud of herself for this Australian Open. She did everything right.
It just doesn’t always work out.