Serena Williams came to her semifinal match at the Australian Open on Thursday wearing a one-legged catsuit in pink, red, and black, along with a diamond-encrusted necklace that said “QUEEN.” Williams, who is thirty-nine years old, was playing in her seventy-seventh Grand Slam tournament, and is currently ranked eleventh in the world. But only one number has seemed to matter to her for a long time now: twenty-four, as in, the most major titles won by any player. Williams has won twenty-three, the most in the Open era; the Australian Margaret Court won twenty-four, under far easier circumstances than the ones Williams has faced. (For starters, top players often did not travel to the Australian Open, which Court won eleven times.) The record would not change Williams’s place in history—she long ago established herself as the greatest player of all time. Still, the quest for another Slam title has been a preoccupation not only for the media but for her, too, as winning always is.
Her last major title came in 2017, when she was pregnant with her daughter, before she took some time away from the tour. Since coming back, after suffering severe complications during a difficult labor, she has been the most consistent woman at the Grand Slams, reaching four finals and two semifinals, including Thursday’s match. Nearing her fortieth birthday, she remains, unquestionably, one of the best players in the game. But, in the late rounds of majors, she has seemed tense and tight, while her opponents have played loose and without fear. She has yet to win a set in a Grand Slam final since coming back.
One of those losses was to Naomi Osaka, who, on Thursday, stood across the net from Williams again. Their first match at a major, in the final of the 2018 U.S. Open, was nearly overshadowed by an argument between Williams and the umpire. Osaka outplayed Williams that day, and she went on to win two more majors: the 2019 Australian Open, and last September’s U.S. Open. She won them with the kind of power and self-possession that suggested something more significant than mere tennis titles. Osaka, who is twenty-three, was gaining that quality most often associated with Serena Williams: inevitability.
“As long as Serena’s here,” Osaka said this week,“I think she’s the face of women’s tennis.” She calls Williams her idol, and, in her comments, seems no more willing to take center stage from Williams than Williams seems prepared to cede it. On the court, though, it was a different story. She seized it.
Their semifinal was set up to be more than a tennis match. It was an event: history versus the future, the young champion facing a legend. Both Williams and Osaka came into it playing some of their best tennis. Williams had spent the off-season working on her lateral movement, her footwork, and her sprinting. (That one-legged catsuit? An homage to the late, great Florence Griffith Joyner, the fastest woman in history.) Her training had shown during her victories over Aryna Sabalenka, the seventh seed, and Simona Halep, who is ranked second in the world. Williams showed her usual power, but she won both matches with defense, lunging wide, racing to reach short balls, scrambling and sliding and recovering her balance, only to sprint and scramble some more. Against Halep—perhaps the best mover in the game—Williams won a majority of the points that lasted between five and nine shots, according to the ESPN broadcast of the match, and an even higher percentage of those that lasted ten or more—including one in the second set, with Halep serving at 3–3, that lasted twenty strokes.
Osaka, meanwhile, had nearly been knocked out in the fourth round, spraying errors and going down two match points against Garbiñe Muguruza, a two-time Grand Slam winner. Even at that moment, though, it was clear that the win was within Osaka’s reach. Facing defeat seemed to focus her. She started to play with calm aggression, sending her shots back with more margin, and, at the same time, more depth. Her serves snapped, skidded, and kicked a little higher. She didn’t make a single error in the final twenty-two points, and won the match in three sets. Then, in the quarterfinals, against Hsieh Su-Wei—a player of confounding tactics and baffling skill—she kept her cool and stayed in control from the start.
At the start of the semifinal, though, Osaka, as she later admitted, was intimidated by the sight of Williams across the net. Her ball toss wandered, and her serves sprayed long or clipped the tape. “I’ve grown up watching what she does to people’s returns when the serve is soft,” Osaka said afterward. During the third point in the first game, she hit a double fault. A wild forehand gave Williams two break points, and a backhand dumped into the net gave up the break. It got worse from there: down 2–0, she seemed in danger of going down a double break, before managing to hold.
But Osaka has an astonishing ability to gather herself—and she has shown, again and again, how quickly she can turn a match around. She started to move Williams from side to side, using her steady, solid backhand to push Williams back or rolling sharply angled shots off the court. She used her power, awareness, and well-disguised strokes to catch Williams moving the wrong way several times. The calmer Osaka became, the more demonstrative Williams was. “Make a shot!” Williams yelled after yet another missed forehand.
Osaka took the first set, 6–3, and seemed to be cruising through the second. Then, serving at 4–3, with the end of the match in sight, Osaka double-faulted—and then did it again, and again. On the broadcast replay, you could see her chest quickly heave. The score leveled at 4–4. History would say that Williams wasn’t out of it yet. For much of her career, she has been known as a closer, someone whose level rises as the pressure does. But Osaka did not unravel. In fact, she did not lose another point.
Her victory was not pretty. Neither player made even half of their first serves. Neither had more winners than unforced errors. (Williams finished with twice as many unforced errors as winners for the match.) But it was tense, and it was telling. It used to be said of Williams that the outcome is always on her racquet. That’s true of Osaka now. There was not a moment, from start to finish, when Osaka was not either winning or beating herself.
On Saturday, Osaka will be playing Jennifer Brady, the winner of the day’s other women’s semifinal, for her fourth major title in three years. Williams will still have twenty-three majors. As she left the court, the small crowd gave her a standing ovation. She put her hand to her heart and stood there.
In her press conference after the match, she was asked if she was saying goodbye. “If I ever say farewell, I wouldn’t tell anyone,” she said. Answering the next question, about the number of unforced errors, she broke down in tears. There is no way to know what was actually in her mind at that moment. But watching it, I had a sense of reality crashing in.
The scene reminded me of another press conference: when Osaka cried after losing at Wimbledon, in 2019. She had reached No. 1 in the world, had won two consecutive majors, and had seemed poised to become the next dominant force in women’s tennis. She was about to surpass Williams as the highest-paid female athlete in the world, and she was enchanting crowds, and press rooms, with her unique, disarming style. But her game sometimes deserted her, and she had difficulty finding ways to win without her best shots. She was open, too, about her struggles with the intensity of the attention and the expectations placed upon her. A few weeks later, she would say that she was no longer having fun on the court.
What changed? Her serve improved. She learned to adjust her game plan, to control points and construct them a little more conservatively. There was a new coach, Wim Fissette. A new house in L.A. There was a pandemic, too, and a wave of social-justice protests that began last summer, after the murder of George Floyd. Osaka, the daughter of a Japanese mother and a Haitian father, who was born in Japan and grew up in the United States, attended protests in Minneapolis and Los Angeles, and wrote an essay for Esquire about her growing political and social consciousness. At the U.S. Open, she used every match to call attention to victims of police brutality. She has talked about how she feels more secure, better able to separate her sense of worth from her accomplishments. She came into the tournament, she said after the match, happy with her team, and with a sense of “different purpose.”
Osaka has been quick to say that she follows the trail that Williams blazed. At the same time, though, she has always been making her way alone. The two women are different in many respects, and not only because of their strikingly different personalities, or because Osaka is sixteen years younger. The ineffable quality that Williams has, that aura, can’t be copied. Osaka has her own aura now.