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Is Osaka Playing Serena's Swan Song?

Yann Caradec via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

There’s a saying at the end of a relationship that goes, don’t be sad that it’s ending, be glad that it happened. 

If we are, in fact, watching the end of the reign of Serena Williams atop the world of tennis, then we should celebrate one of the great athletes of this or any era.

Williams set a standard for excellence that likely won’t be met or exceeded for some time to come, in or out of tennis.

To wit, she won 23 major or Grand Slam tournament singles titles, from the hardcourts of Melbourne, Australia and New York to the grass at Wimbledon and  the clay of Roland Garros in Paris.

No man or woman has won more titles during what is called the Open era, when professionals and amateurs have competed together at Grand Slam events. 

Williams has also won 14 Grand Slam doubles events and two more mixed doubles titles. She’s won nearly $100 million in prize money and spent the equivalent of six years as the top-ranked player in the world.

Add that to four Olympic gold medals, and the case for her positioning on the Mount Rushmore of great athletes of the past 50 years should be unquestioned.

And, to be clear, this is not a gender-specific discussion. There is no scenario in which a resume like the one Serena Williams has would be challenged if it belonged to a man. 

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar joked in the movie “Airplane” about having to drag Bob Lanier and Bill Walton around the basketball court.

Well, Serena Williams also dragged a human around a court, namely her unborn baby, as she won the 2017 Australian Open while roughly two months pregnant, a feat no male athlete will ever top. 

In other words, Serena Williams is a great athlete.  

This may have the sound of an elegy for a career that has passed, an obituary of sorts for Williams. It’s not intended as such.

Since returning from that pregnancy, Williams has reached the finals in five Grand Slam tournaments and the semifinals in two others, including last week’s Australian Open.

Williams will turn 40 at the end of September and if we’ve learned nothing in recent years, including earlier this month with Tom Brady in the Super Bowl, it’s that we doubt athletes over the age of 40 at our own peril. 

The problem for Williams is that for the first time in years, she faces a challenger to the throne who is not her sister, Venus. 

Naomi Osaka has emerged as the next great female tennis star, with four Grand Slam titles, including the last two, last year’s U.S. Open and last week’s Australian. 

Her forehand and serve are reminiscent of Williams, whom she has beaten three of the five times they’ve met, including in last week’s semifinal.

And while we shouldn’t diminish Williams for what she could still accomplish at her age, we shouldn’t ignore that at 23, Osaka appears to have years of winning ahead, some of which may be at Williams’ expense.

Still, even if Serena Williams’ winning is at an end, we can all be grateful for the winning she’s done and the legacy she leaves.

And that’s how I see it for this week.


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Milton Kent hosted the weekly commentary Sports at Large from its creation in 2002 to its finale in July 2013. He has written about sports locally and nationally since 1988, covering the Baltimore Orioles, University of Maryland men's basketball, women's basketball and football, the Washington Wizards, the NBA, men's and women's college basketball and sports media for the Baltimore Sun and AOL Fanhouse. He has covered the World Series, the American and National League Championship Series, the NFL playoffs, the NBA Finals and 17 NCAA men's and women's Final Fours. He currently teaches journalism at Morgan State University.