More than just a semifinal: Australian Open highlights stars’ intertwined legacies

Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka at the Stanford Classic in 2014, the first time the young Osaka qualified for the WTA Main Draw. Courtesy of topol6 via Wikimedia Commons.

When Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka faced off in the semifinals of the 2021 Australian Open last week, the tennis world, athletes and avid sports fans alike had a hard time choosing one competitor to cheer for. On one side: one of most dominant athletes of her time in sport, politics and pop culture, the reigning GOAT of GOATS, looking for that long-awaited 24th Grand Slam singles title––the self-dubbed “Queen,” Serena. And on the other side, the heir apparent in all of the above, one of the 2020 Sports Illustrated Sportspersons of the Year, 23-year-old Naomi. Two of the biggest athletes in the world. Two of the most famous Black women in the world. The monarch and her successor. How can you choose just one to root for? 

The easiest way to avoid such distress was by simply cheering for them both. No matter who advanced, there was sure to be a Black woman (not to mention a publicly-adored superstar) in the 2021 Australian Open Final, no small feat in a historically white and elitist sport. For Serena, it would be a chance at another opportunity to secure that elusive 24th Slam, tying Margaret Court’s all-time record en route to hopefully expunging the homophobic and transphobic former champion from the record books. Williams has been chasing the accolade since 2017, when she won her last title (also at the Australian Open) while pregnant with her daughter. Serena’s journey back to the biggest stages since her pregnancy has been challenging, an odyssey which few athletes can relate to. Postpartum blood-clots leading to a near-death experience (one that she almost single-handedly saved herself from after medical professionals refused to take her seriously at first), injuries from training, four Grand Slam finals losses since 2018 and simply her age at 39-years-old, have all contributed to a long, hard-fought climb back to the podium. Naomi, on the other hand, “the most thrilling athlete of her generation,” is fresh off a 2020 in which she won the US Open and emerged as a leading activist in sports: She used her platform at the US Open to highlight six Black Americans who were killed in the past few years, most by police, on her face masks walking into matches. She also wrote an op-ed piece for Esquire on supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and protesting police brutality. 

So, when the two took the court at 10 p.m. on Wednesday night, the anticipation was high––most didn’t want either to lose. Serena came out hot the first two games, going ahead 2-0. She had been playing excellent defense the entire tournament, looking the fittest she has in a long time, and going up early and capitalizing on Osaka’s nervousness could have helped safeguard a victory for Serena. But, after the third game and some unforced errors from Serena, Naomi settled in and loosened up. From there, Naomi’s fast, hard serve and control of the center of the court proved too much for the defensive prowess of Williams, and Osaka won easily in straight sets, 6-3, 6-4.

Osaka advanced to the final that took place the following Saturday, where she prevailed over Jennifer Brady in straight sets as well, 6-4, 6-3. After Osaka’s win over Williams in the semifinal, it all seemed rather anticlimactic. The hype of the matchup between Osaka and Williams (will Serena defeat the kid to retain possession of the title of top female tennis player in the world? Will it be a long, drawn out, hotly contested match between the two heavyweights?) did not necessarily match what was played out on the court. Ultimately, the match proved that this is simply Naomi’s show now.

Naomi and Serena will always be entwined in their legends, for reasons beyond Naomi’s rise to become her successor. Their rivalry truly began with Naomi’s first title. Serena and Naomi met for the second time in their careers at the 2018 US Open final, the second Grand Slam final Serena had been in since returning from the birth of her daughter and the first final appearance for Naomi. The final became a controversial one when Serena was warned for illegally being coached from the stands and penalized for breaking her racket, eventually being penalized a game, all of which she adamantly protested throughout the match. Her frustration and anger at the calls boiled over onto the court and into the crowd, so when Naomi finally won 6-2, 6-4 and was rewarded her trophy, the stadium booed and the 20-year-old tearfully apologized for winning her first Grand Slam title. The wildness of the match immediately thrust Osaka into the limelight, one which, at the time, she was reluctant to step into. 

The 2018 US Open final set Naomi and Serena up immediately as rivals, a description that would likely be disavowed by both. But that doesn’t make it any less true. Naomi has emerged as the only legitimate opposition in Serena’s quest for 24 (besides Serena herself). There will always be a degree of emotion in their matches against each other––an opportunity to best your idol that few get for Naomi, and an opening for Serena to prove that she can still compete at the highest level. Yet, what has become clear after the travesties of 2020 and the 2021 Australian Open is that Naomi Osaka is more than Serena’s rival. She’s her enduring legacy. 

Osaka was born in Osaka, Japan to Haitian and Japanese parents, and she lived in Japan until she was three years old, when she moved to Long Island, New York. Her father was inspired by the work Richard Williams did in coaching his daughters, Venus and Serena. Since the beginning of her career, Naomi has acknowledged the impact Serena has had on her as a young athlete, especially as a young Black female athlete, and admits she still watches all of Serena’s matches, even if it is not in preparation for playing her. You can easily see the impact that Serena has had on Naomi’s playing style: They both are extremely athletic baseline players, utilize powerful, fast serves and have a clutch ability to take over matches at the flip of a switch. But beyond their similarities on the court, Naomi has found herself as the true heir apparent to being the leading woman athlete in the world.

  Since the beginning of her professional career in the 1990s, Serena, along with her sister Venus, has always unapologetically celebrated her Blackness and her identity as a Black woman. Despite being constantly criticized for the beads in her hair when she was young, her match outfits (like the one-legged catsuit she wore at the Australian Open this year to commemorate another famous Black female athlete, trackstar Florence Griffith Joyner), c-walking at Wimbledon and her outspoken support for the Black Lives Matter movement since 2016, Serena has always revered her identity and been outspoken about the injustices she has faced as a Black woman in the U.S. and while playing tennis across the world. She has also never been afraid to clap back against any racist and misogynist critics that have stalked her career, including officials at Grand Slam tournaments. Perhaps thanks to Serena’s inspiration, Naomi has also publicly and unashamedly celebrated her biracialness. You can find her on social media posting about how she will be a character in a new manga magazine, on the cover of “Harper’s Bazaar Japan,” wearing a Haitian head wrap or remembering Emmett Till. Following in Serena’s footsteps, this past year has been huge for Osaka in stepping out as a leading activist in fighting racial injustices, as she attended the protests in Minneapolis over the murder of George Floyd and urged the 2020 Cincinnati Open to postpone play after she announced she would withdraw in protest of the shooting of Jacob Blake. The space Serena and Venus both occupy as leading Black women athletes who have continuously fought and lauded their identities for those like them, has allowed Naomi to thrive and inherit this space as a leading Black female athlete and activist.

The passing of the crown in women’s tennis most likely occurred this past week when Naomi Osaka beat Serena Williams in the semifinal. Even though Serena might still have enough in her to finally capture that 24th title, it truly is Naomi’s world now, with Serena just living in it. Naomi will continue to follow the path Serena has treaded for so long. She has even followed Serena’s lead already by uplifting more women in sports, investing in the National Women’s Soccer League’s NC Courage just after Serena invested in the new NWSL franchise, Angel City. Naomi will be a name the sports world will come to know as well as any. But just like her idol, only the first name is necessary.

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