Last week, Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka met again at the Australian Open. I have always been TeamSerena. I often watched tennis with my father and great-grandmother who both wanted to see Venus and Serena Williams win. I thought nothing would be nearly as difficult than watching the sisters play each other, wanting the impossible – to see them both win. Watching Serena play Naomi, however, was particularly difficult at the 2018 US Open and again last Wednesday at the Australian Open.
Serena is and always will be an icon, not only of tennis, but of sports. She has consistently been referred to as the G.O.A.T. — greatest of all time. She has been asked far too many times whether or not she considers herself the greatest female athlete of all time. After her 2016 Wimbledon win over Elena Vesnina, she corrected reporters who asked if she was the one of the greatest female athletes of all time. “I prefer the words ‘one of the greatest athletes of all time’.”
Named Sportsperson of the Year by Sports Illustrated in 2015 and having secured 21 grand slams by that time, she had a point. While some continue to question her position, Williams’ husband Alexis Ohanian wore a t-shirt with her photo and “Greatest female athlete” with a strike through “female” on it. The message is clear.
The G.O.A.T. has goals
For Architectural Digest, Williams opened the door to her Miami home and, even with an art gallery instead of a living room, her trophy room is what got a lot of attention. It was clear that all of her trophies were not in that room. She had to a pick up a few of them to remind herself of what they were. At one point she said: “I see a second place trophy, but I’m gonna put that one in the trash. It shouldn’t be in here. We don’t keep second place.”
Serena Williams now has 23 grand slams. It is common knowledge she wants a 24th to tie the record set by Margaret Court. She has never been satisfied to simply play. She likes winning and, perhaps even more than that, she likes to be at her best. When she is not, her frustration is obvious, and it can affect her game.
We also know that she is her own best advocate. She does not hesitate to speak her mind or defend her position. She is both fierce in her pursuit of every win and human.
She has experienced racism and misogyny from the beginning of her career. Serena and Venus Williams were two little Black girls playing tennis, and doing it incredibly well. Everyone was not happy to see it. The sisters likely had to learn to be confident in their skill and the positions they have earned in the sport. They were not always able to depend on a crowd or the general public for support. It should be no surprise that Serena Williams can stand on her own, sets high goals, and doggedly pursues them.
I recently saw a lengthy Facebook post by someone who likely considered himself to be defending Williams. His position was that she is being forced to push herself too hard in order to prove herself to the world, and her goal to get her 24th grand slam is not important. He said the record is only “such a make it or break it” because of the racism she has endured. This argument does not really make sense since Williams has proven, over and over again, that she, a black woman, is the G.O.A.T., but even if she solely wanted to prove racists wrong or upset them, so what? It is ridiculous to make such assertions about her goal and to invalidate it. Can she not want to tie the record for her own satisfaction?
Williams has been shaking up the world of tennis from the beginning. Braids, beads, catsuits, razor sharp words, winning while pregnant and coming back to win after giving birth are among her badges of honour. It should be clear by now she does what she wants. No one can control her motivations or her goals.
Serena Williams can be “enough” and have “enough” and still want to keep playing, winning and setting records. She knows she can stop at any time. To suggest she plays the game she loves to prove her greatness is insulting. She has already established that she is among the greats. She does this for herself.
Osaka has a different approach
Most of the world met Naomi Osaka just a couple of years ago when she was set to play Serena Williams at the US Open. It was a highly anticipated event and no one knew quite what to expect. Osaka plays with what appears to be tremendous calm. She does not seem to get riled up nor put too much pressure on herself. It may be her ability to focus only on what is immediately in front of her that helps her to win.
In the on-court interview after winning the semi-final at the Australian Open against Serena last week, Osaka said: “I was a little kid watching her play and just to be on the court playing against her, for me, is a dream.” She added that it is fun, as a competitor to play another competitor. She made the crowd laugh with her response to a question about reading Williams’ serves, saying she was guessing. “I don’t know, it’s either going this way or that way. I just gotta put my foot somewhere.”
At the press conference, Osaka said: “I can only play one point at a time and I’m gonna try my best to play every point as well as I can.” She has also spoken about this being her overall approach, not having a goal number of grand slams, but doing her best and taking them as they come.
Osaka and Williams are two very different players. They are both incredibly strong, skilled players with large fan bases. With a 16 year age difference, they bring excitement to the court as well as questions about the longevity of their careers. As is often the case with women in any field, there are constant attempts to pit them against each other.
Last week, when Osaka was asked if she thought Serena Williams was losing her place as the face of tennis, her answer was short. “No. Not at all.”
Room for two
These two players have respect for the sport and for each other. Osaka has said, many times, that she has always been a big fan of Serena and feels fortunate to be able to play her. Williams has been supportive of Osaka as a young player and knows she will continue to rise.
Williams’ position in the sport is cemented. Hers is a legacy that cannot be hidden or denied. With reverence for Williams and hope for Osaka, the semi-final was an exciting event to watch. I text messaged my father throughout, about faults, points, wanting them both to win and wanting Williams to get her 24th grand slam title.
It was a great win for Osaka and a tough loss for Williams. Before going to the locker room, Williams took in the glory of a standing ovation, waved to the crowd and put a hand over her chest. I read it as her enjoying that moment, where the crowd recognised her for what she continues to be — the G.O.A.T. Others, of course, had different ideas.
In the press conference that followed, Williams was obviously upset about the outcome. This is not about Osaka’s win, but specifically related to her own bid for the title that would give her that 24 grand slam. In the interview, she acknowledged she made a lot of errors and was obviously disappointed by that.
One of the questions basically asked if her last moments on the court, taking in the ovation, were a farewell. It was a jarring question and Williams said if she were to give a farewell, she would not tell anyone. Moments after answering, she fought back tears. To the next question, her answer was “I don’t know,” and she said she was done with the press conference. It was hard to watch and easy to imagine the way she felt. She is not ready to leave the sport and she wants 24.
Naomi Osaka has been named “Baby G.O.A.T.” It is recognition of her excellence, but not an unseating of Serena Williams. She will remain an aspirational figure for years to come.
Osaka noted that the Williams sisters inspired her when she was younger, and she wants to be able to so the same for younger generations. Naomi is charting her own path, playing tennis her way and taking it bit by bit. She may play Williams again, but the two are not competing for a single legacy. As Osaka said, tennis is a game. There will be many wins and losses on the court and it is possible to have mutual respect and leave very different marks on the world.
Published in my weekly column in The Tribune on February 24, 2021.
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