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As Serena Williams nears the end, her greatness plays on in Naomi Osaka

Serena Williams congratulates Naomi Osaka after their Australian Open semifinal. (Paul Crock/AFP via Getty Images)
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Despite her disappointment, Serena Williams lingered in a walk-off moment. She made clear her appreciation to the Australian Open crowd, whirling around to acknowledge the entire audience, holding a hand to her heart, allowing time to feel everything she needed to feel.

Was it a goodbye? Asked during a news conference after her semifinal loss to Naomi Osaka on Thursday in Melbourne, she was coy: “I don’t know. If I ever say farewell, I wouldn’t tell anyone, so …” Soon after, in response to a run-of-the-mill question about unforced errors, Williams choked up and couldn’t restrain the tears.

“I’m … I’m done,” she said, walking away quickly this time.

Williams, who has spent 25 of her 39 years as a groundbreaking professional tennis player, is inching closer to stepping away for good. In her sport, she is well beyond Tom Brady territory when it comes to age defiance, and though she played some of her best recent tennis during this tournament, the hunt for a record-tying 24th Grand Slam title seems more burdensome than exciting for her now. She is transitioning mentally, and on the other side of aging, the 23-year-old Osaka is gaining strength and realizing that this is her time.

In sports, torches aren’t often passed easily. The transfer requires some yanking. Osaka gave a strong tug with an overpowering 6-3, 6-4 victory over Williams.

With power and fortitude, Osaka outplays her idol to advance to Australian Open final

Osaka was ferocious after a slow start. She dropped the first two games of the match and nearly the third and later admitted playing Williams remains an “intimidating” experience for her. Osaka respects Williams so much. But she must grasp that she honors Williams with her burgeoning greatness, even if it means denying her idol a chance at history.

You get the sense there’s a part of Osaka that feels the same as the rest of Williams’s fans when she loses just shy of matching Margaret Court’s Grand Slam record. If it’s hard to watch Williams succumb to defeat, imagine being the admirer who must administer the setback one 122-mph serve at a time.

“Just to be on the court playing against her, for me, is a dream,” Osaka said.

Osaka also doesn’t want to think about the end of Williams’s career.

“It’s kind of sad when you say it like that because, for me, I want her to play forever,” she told reporters. “That’s the little kid in me.”

The great ones have fooled us lately. They have lulled us into a false sense of agelessness. It has been an emotional balm. During an agonizing period defined by mortality, as the coronavirus pandemic stealthily takes out thousands every day worldwide, the greatest sources of escape from sports have been these inspirational displays of athletic persistence. Brady won a seventh Super Bowl at 43, Sue Bird clinched her fourth WNBA title a week before her 40th birthday, and LeBron James was a champion and Finals MVP to end his 17th NBA season. Everywhere, old athletes are thriving and providing a counterbalance to the harsh daily reminders of life’s fragility.

But there’s no such thing as beating Father Time. You can stall him. You can evade him. But the end is inevitable. It can be harsh, too. And it can feel abrupt. While it’s a wonderful gift to marvel over the longevity of Williams and other superstars, the final key piece of a legacy involves lasting influence on future generations. Stick around long enough, and that means falling to the next great thing.

Tennis confronts Margaret Court’s complicated legacy

In Super Bowl LV, Brady and his team in Tampa may have been able to hold off a possible Patrick Mahomes-led dynasty in Kansas City. At the end of last season, James may have stood atop the NBA again during a time in which Giannis Antetokounmpo won back-to-back regular season MVPs. But it’s not as if the young stars are being deferential, and fending them off is only temporary. There’s always an Osaka, and the fact that she has beaten Williams in this semifinal and the 2018 U.S. Open final reveals more about her incredible talent than any blemishes on Williams’s legacy.

Between the Super Bowl and this Australian Open matchup, the new year already has given us two spectacular, generational clashes. But there’s something novel about Osaka and Williams. This was just their fifth meeting. There’s not enough time left in Williams’s career for Osaka to go down as one of her fiercest rivals, but she figures to be the last dominant champion in her path. And at this point, Osaka might be an unscalable challenge for Williams, who has had a ceaseless ability to find another level.

If Osaka can defeat Jennifer Brady in the final, she will clinch her fourth Grand Slam. She’s probably not going to win as much as Williams, but she has a chance to own the next decade in women’s tennis. She’s the marketable new face. She earned more than $37 million in endorsements and prize money last year, according to Forbes, edging Williams as the world’s highest-paid female athlete. She is a powerful emerging voice on social justice issues, but she expresses herself in a different, authentic way: direct, spare and chill.

Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka have a brief but memorable history

It took the trailblazing efforts of the Williams sisters, two African American girls from Compton, to create a pathway for Osaka — who is Haitian and Japanese — to feel comfortable bringing her own flavor to the sport. And tennis is better for it. It is flourishing because of it.

After the match, the two Black female tennis icons, one enduring and the other elevating, approached for a post-match hug. It was warm yet appropriately careful for these contagious times. Osaka, the winner almost apologetic in posture, sank into the embrace of Williams, a legend she admires but an opponent she was again forced to vanquish.

As Osaka walked toward a microphone for an interview, Williams paused for her moment of gratitude with the crowd. As she spun around, so did her silver necklace featuring a single word: QUEEN. Glittering diamonds traced each letter.

If this is the beginning of her tennis farewell, she doesn’t have to tell anyone. But at every stop, maybe she could continue to linger and shine.

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