A numbers game

James Salazar

Staff Writer

Social media lit up Feb. 18 as Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka faced off in an Australian Open semifinal match. Instead of celebrating Williams and Osaka’s respective performances on the day, media coverage surrounding the match centered on questions of Williams’ longevity in the sport while Osaka’s current success was overshadowed by her promising future. 

The last Grand Slam meeting between the two took place at the 2018 U.S. Open where Osaka won her first career Grand Slam singles title in an infamous match that saw Williams receive three code violations. There was much at stake for both athletes coming into their 2021 matchup.  If Osaka repeated her winning ways, the contest would be seen by many as a figurative passing of the “face of tennis” torch. Had Williams been the victor, her journey towards a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title would’ve been one step closer.

Osaka, on the other hand, looked to capture her fourth Grand Slam singles title and become the first woman to win her first four Grand Slam singles finals. After a little more than an hour, Osaka emerged victorious (6-3, 6-4) and punched her ticket to the women’s singles final, eventually winning the entire tournament against Jennifer Brady in the championship match. 

Rather than celebrating both women’s performances, headlines centered around Williams’ difficulty to capture the “big one” and Osaka’s future as tennis’ next big star. 

As Williams waved a heartfelt goodbye to the roughly 7,000 fans in attendance, the media pushed the narrative that the seasoned veteran was saying farewell to both the tournament and the sport. Osaka, on the other hand, was being touted as Williams’ second coming. 

This coverage was a disservice to both competitors, and it speaks to a larger issue in sports media which sees athletes unnecessarily pitted against one another while simultaneously having their accomplishments overlooked or minimized. Instead of focusing on a rivalry, Williams and Osaka should both be celebrated for their groundbreaking careers as women of color in a predominantly white sport. 

Since lifting her last Grand Slam title in 2017, Williams’ status as the greatest of all time has been a frequent topic of conversation. With every passing tournament, tennis fans wait with bated breath to see if Williams can tie, and possibly break, Australian great Margaret Court’s record for most Grand Slam singles titles. However, it is preposterous to think that Williams’ legacy hinges on hoisting one more trophy and not her litany of epic victories and heart-stopping comebacks.

After Williams lost her semifinal match to Osaka, a reporter asked if it would be her swan song. Williams said, “If I ever say farewell, I wouldn’t tell anyone.” When Williams abruptly ended her press conference in tears, more suspicions were raised that the Australian Open was her last hurrah. 

Williams has contributed far too much to the sport of tennis not to leave with her head held high, and more importantly, on her own terms. After all, her glorious tales of victory would be nothing without the occasional crushing defeat. 

In an interview with the Washington Post, Patrick Mouratoglou, Williams’ longtime coach, said that Williams is “not as obsessed with the 24 [as] most of the people in the tennis world, but definitely she wants to win Grand Slams.” It seems Williams’ final Grand Slam victory is something media and fans are pining for more than the player’s greatness itself. 

Outside of minimizing Williams’ successes, the media has also framed Osaka’s accomplishments around replacing Williams as the sport’s next great athlete. During her post-match press conference, a reporter asked Osaka if her win over Williams positioned her as the new face of tennis. “No. Not at all,” she responded. Osaka deserves to come into her own as an athlete and forge a career where her victories stand on their own and are not being constantly compared to Williams’. 

Osaka barely had time to relish in her success before her performance sparked speculative conversations about the young star becoming a double-digit Grand Slam winner. “I don’t like to take things big-picture,” said Osaka. “For me, I like to live in the moment.” According to Osaka, this mentality keeps her from having to worry about others’ “pressures and expectations” and focus on the game at hand.  

At 39, Williams still has what it takes to reach Grand Slam finals and defeat top 10 players in the process, but her best days are undoubtedly behind her. It is a thing of beauty to see opponents like Osaka go from watching Williams on television to standing across from her on court. 

Our attention should be centered on Williams’ talent and longevity, not her eventual retirement. Too often, athletes are not appreciated in their prime. The public tends to recognize greatness more once these men and women are seen as relics of a bygone era. 

Conversely, Osaka deserves to be recognized as her own competitor and not the heir apparent to the greatest of all time. Conversations around Osaka’s semifinals performance have overlooked how impressive it was that the champion was able to rally back from a shaky start in her match against Williams to firmly take control of the game. 

Williams and Osaka will both undoubtedly go down in history as two of the greatest players to ever pick up a tennis racket. We should be appreciating their talent now instead of constantly pushing secondary narratives. 

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