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…