Serena Williams will leave the Australian Open knowing another golden chance to equal Margaret Court's grand slam record has slipped through her fingers.
Serena's latest bid to equal Court's haul of 24 majors was crushed by Naomi Osaka on Thursday, the Japanese star winning their semi-final clash 6-3, 6-4.
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The loss extends Serena's grand slam drought to four years, her last coming at the 2017 Australian Open when she beat sister Venus in the final while pregnant with her daughter.
What seemed like a certainty back then has now faded to mere possibility as Serena remains rooted on 23 grand slam titles - one behind the all-time record of Court.
The 39-year-old has suffered four defeats in grand slam finals during her four-year drought - two at Wimbledon and two at the US Open.
Last year marked the first since 2006 that Serena failed to make a grand slam final.
She fell in the third round of the Australian Open to China's Wang Qiang, suffered an achilles injury in the US Open semi-finals and was subsequently forced to withdraw from the French after the first round, while the cancellation of Wimbledon certainly didn't help.
The French Open may have been her last real chance to capture the elusive 24th major, with five of the world's top 10 female players not in attendance.
If she had've made the 2021 Australian Open final she would have faced rank outsider and compatriot Jennifer Brady.
There are now fears we may have seen the last of Serena at the Australian Open after an over-exaggerated farewell to the crowd as she left Rod Laver Arena.
“For the last 20 years, you doubted Serena at your own peril. So you can’t say this was her last chance at No. 24. But this was her last best chance,” Sports Illustrated's John Wertheim wrote on Thursday.
“You start to think: If not now, when? She’ll still be 39 at Wimbledon. But now it’s four-plus years since her last major. You can see Osaka is 16 years younger than she is.”
Helene Elliott of the LA Times added that Serena's “days of domination are over."
Serena Williams leaves Australian Open in tears
Turning 40 in September, Serena cut her post-match press conference short on Wednesday as she left the media room in tears.
With her hand on heart, the American paid a touching tribute to the crowd before leaving Rod Laver Arena, raising the prospect that her 21st Open campaign may have been her last.
"I don't know. If I ever say farewell, I wouldn't tell anyone," Serena said.
"So ..: I don't know. The Aussie crowd is so amazing, so it was nice to see."
Serena put her semi-final exit down to a litany of errors.
"The difference today was errors. I made so many errors," she said.
"Honestly, it was opportunities where I could have won. I could have been up five-love. I just made so many errors."
Twenty-four in fact, to just 12 winners.
Asked how she hoped to juggle tennis with travel and motherhood during the ongoing pandemic, Serena was in no mood to reveal her plans.
"I feel like I haven't really thought about that so much," she 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.
"But, yeah, those are things that I haven't really thought about."
Then, breaking down in tears, the seven-times Australian Open champion cut short her post-match press conference.
"I don't know," Williams said. "I'm done."
According to tennis great Mats Wilander, Serena's tears were a product of the fact she was just no match for her much younger opponent.
“No (it’s not the end for Serena),” Wilander said on Thursday.
“We see those tears because she was disappointed in the way she played. (...) For her this is a bigger loss, because she is moving better, she is playing better and she is still not really close to Osaka.”
Christopher Kamrani of The Athletic added: “It’s just that Williams was playing so well in Melbourne, that she looked closer to her peak self than she had in years, that maybe falling short of a final was more difficult to deal with than she initially expected."
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