Serena soaks in the moment after semifinal loss

  • Dan Imhoff

Rod Laver Arena is the stage seven-time Australian Open champion Serena Williams frequently nominates as the site of her warmest support over the past two decades.

So it seemed fitting when the 39-year-old had gathered her bags following defeat to Naomi Osaka on Thursday that she would stop in her tracks on her walk back to the tunnel.

It was the first match where crowds had been allowed to return to Melbourne Park following a snap five-day lockdown, a reminder there were no certainties in a time of such global upheaval.

MORE: Osaka takes down Serena 

Williams stopped for a moment and lowered her hand to her heart before raising a final salute to all corners of the standing crowd. 

It was inevitable regardless of how she chose to depart that questions would be raised whether this was in fact a final farewell to Melbourne Park, a realisation that if she was to draw level with Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 majors, it may have to happen elsewhere.

It is now four years since Williams won her 23rd at Melbourne Park. At the time, it seemed a fait accompli she would reach the mark.

What the-then 35-year-old did not reveal at the time was that she was two months’ pregnant.

Priorities understandably shifted once her daughter Olympia was born, but the hunger to equal that record did not diminish.

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AO 2017 remains Serena's most recent major singles title

After missing the subsequent four majors, Williams returned in time for the 2018 French Open.

She has fallen short at the 10 majors since her return, including four finals. Angelique Kerber, Osaka, Simona Halep and Bianca Andreescu have all had her number.

Being a semifinal, her fourth showdown with Osaka was relieved of some of the pressure, which came with their infamous clash in the 2018 US Open final.

But more than two years on, time continued to press.

Against a confident Osaka, unbeaten in her past 19 matches dating back to last February, this proved a bridge too far as Williams’ first semifinal defeat at Melbourne Park in nine appearances was sealed 6-3 6-4.

“I wouldn't say I was nervous, no,” Williams said. “The difference today was errors. I made so many errors today.

“Honestly, it was opportunities where I could have won. I could have been up 5-love. I just made so many errors.

“I felt like I was hitting well. I was hitting well this whole tournament. Even the first couple of games I played well. Even then I had so many opportunities.”

Williams was already the oldest woman to reach the Australian Open semifinals in the Open Era.

The chance to compete again in her 20th campaign at Melbourne Park had come as a flicker of hope in a world still in the vice-like grip of a pandemic.

The season ahead remained murky.

“I feel like I haven't really thought about that so much,” Williams said. “But I think going through last year with the pandemic was definitely interesting. So I have a little experience under my belt with that, I guess.”

Williams knew the questions would come.

The pause to pivot and thank a standing crowd did not go unnoticed.

“I don't know. The Aussie crowd is so amazing, so it was nice to see,” she said.

Williams smiled when pressed further, before cutting a follow-up response short to make a tearful exit.

“I don’t know, if I’ll ever say farewell,” she said. “I wouldn’t tell anyone.”

In the immediate aftermath of defeat, it may not have been a decision Williams was quite ready to process.