Inspired by Serena, Osaka now stands in her way

Maybe the most perfect part of Serena Williams’ constant quest for her record-tying 24th Grand Slam title is that she is battling not just age (39 now) or the demands of motherhood (her daughter Alexis was born in 2017) but the challenges and challengers she herself all but created.

Serena wouldn’t still be a contender, in the semifinals of the Australian Open long past a time anyone thought she’d still play elite tennis, if she didn’t possess the kind talent and determination that inspires.

In this case, one of the inspirations — 23-year-old Naomi Osaka — will be standing across the net from Serena (10 p.m. ET Wednesday) as, once again, her greatest roadblock to history.

“I would say that if Serena wasn’t there, then I wouldn’t be here,” Osaka, who has won three Grand Slams, told Vogue.

This is the curse of greatness and longevity. The true icons tend to live past expectations until they confront a future generation they made happen. It’s what Tom Brady deals with. It’s what LeBron James deals with.

The little kid who grew up idolizing you, the one pushed to extra practice and higher goals because of you, is now trying to deny you from one more title, one more moment of glory.

Williams has entered 10 majors since she became a mother and eschewed retirement in pursuit of equaling Margaret Court’s record for Grand Slam victories. She’s reached four finals, but fallen short each time, including the 2018 U.S. Open final to Osaka (6-2, 6-4). This would be her crack at No. 5.

Serena Williams (left) has been great this Australian Open. She'll need to be to knock off Naomi Osaka, who looks up to her. (Photo by BRENTON EDWARDS/AFP via Getty Images)Serena Williams (left) has been great this Australian Open. She'll need to be to knock off Naomi Osaka, who looks up to her. (Photo by BRENTON EDWARDS/AFP via Getty Images)
Serena Williams (left) has been great this Australian Open. She’ll need to be to knock off Naomi Osaka, who looks up to her. (Photo by BRENTON EDWARDS/AFP via Getty Images)

The 2021 Australian Open has revealed maybe the best Serena since motherhood, though. She is moving well. She is aggressive. She is focused. She roared to the semifinals in need of just one extra set and just overwhelmed second seed Simona Halep (6-3, 6-3) in the quarters.

If not for the presence of Osaka, the tournament’s third seed, the Australian Open would be wide open. The other semi features two players (Karolina Muchova and Jennifer Brady) who are seeded 22nd and 25th and own a combined four singles titles and no majors.

First though, Osaka, the most feared player in women’s tennis and the budding breakout megastar of her generation.

“Obviously,” Williams said, “I have an incredible opponent to play.”

Osaka was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and a Haitian father. She moved to New York at age 3. Osaka’s father, Leonard Francois, was intrigued by Serena’s dad, Richard Williams, and his story of building tennis stars.

Richard taught two of his daughters, Venus and Serena, on the public courts near their home in Compton, California. Francois decided to do the same on Long Island and later Florida. “The blueprint was already there,” he told the New York Times. “I just had to follow it.”

The Osakas attended numerous U.S. Opens and other events to watch Venus and Serena in person. Throughout her career, whenever she was in a tight spot or needed a particularly bold or precise serve, Naomi would lean on a simple mantra — “WWSD?”

What Would Serena Do?

The first time they faced off as professionals, at the Miami Open in 2018, Naomi was too nervous to even speak to Serena. She said one of her goals going into the match was to provide enough competition that Serena would need to uncork her famed “Come On!” shout she uses to motivate herself.

“Sometimes she plays matches where she doesn’t say, ‘Come on,’ at all,” Osaka said at the time. “And that’s a little bit sad, because you think, ‘Do you think she’s trying?’”

Osaka did more than that, of course. She beat Serena soundly that day, 6-3, 6-2. They are 2-2 in head-to-head matches.

There will be no question about Serena trying this time. She fully respects Osaka’s game. Meanwhile, her drive for 24 is relentless. She could have long ago retired. She doesn’t need the money. She doesn’t need the fame.

She doesn’t even need to tie or own the record for her legacy. Court racked up many of her titles in her native Australia when, at the time, most top players wouldn’t travel there to compete. Williams is universally considered the better player.

Even if Serena never wins another major, the idea that at 39 she is still a top-four player in the biggest of tournaments, is absurd. That’s no different than being named first-team All-NBA or NFL MVP finalist.

This is tennis though, and winning is everything, winning is what is remembered. Serena won her first major at just 17, rocking the U.S. Open to change the face and style of the sport. That was 1999.

Osaka was not yet 2 years old, an oblivious toddler back in Japan. She is now a gifted player and poised champion. She won her first at the 2018 U.S. Open where Williams suffered a meltdown after a referee alleged she had committed a code violation for receiving coaching during the match. The pro-Williams crowd in New York took her side.

The booing and tempers obscured Osaka’s victory — she was teary eyed as she addressed the crowd after. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I know everyone was cheering for her.”

What Osaka displayed that day in stopping the Serena train to history wasn’t just talent. It was the nerves, the concentration, the necessary selfishness, if you will, to be an all-time great.

She isn’t here for narratives or records. She isn’t here to be intimidated or rattled. She might not be here if not for Serena Williams, but all these years later, she also isn’t going to just get out of the way, either.

What Would Serena Do?

Exactly that. Defeat the legend and write your own story.

Which is why one more time on Thursday, to make history, Serena Williams will have to overcome the very history that she created.

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