Greg Cote

The sunset of the greatest women’s player is coming. And the memories will be lasting

Serena Williams of USA, returns against Naomi Osaka of Japan, during the Miami Open tennis tournament, Wed., March 21, 2018, in Key Biscayne, Fla.
Serena Williams of USA, returns against Naomi Osaka of Japan, during the Miami Open tennis tournament, Wed., March 21, 2018, in Key Biscayne, Fla. mocner@miamiherald.com

Appreciate this slow and glorious sunset while you can. Turn the last images into a lasting memory before the magnificent colors blink out over the horizon and become a thing of the past.

The sun will come up tomorrow, but this era in sports is waning. Its days are numbered — and oh, how we will miss this time when it has disappeared.

So the queen returned to her court Wednesday — Serena Williams back at the Miami Open on Key Biscayne, her home tournament — and it felt bigger than tennis.

It felt like nostalgia, like a curtain call. Like a chance to say thank you. And the fans ringing the Stadium Court did just that. And would do so again as she walked off later, defeated.

Serena is 36 now, coming back from maternity leave as a first-time mom. She is the greatest women’s player of all time by my reckoning, and working to make that quantifiable, her 23 career Grand Slam titles trailing only Margaret Court’s 24.

Williams was ranked No. 491 in the world entering this 32nd and final Miami Open on Key Biscayne before it relocates to Hard Rock Stadium next spring. Of course that’s purely a product of her missing so many months of tennis, and the silly WTA rule that penalizes its players for being pregnant.

But will all of the time off, encroaching age and the pull of motherhood allow Serena to win two more majors and make history? It will be intriguing to see that play out, but the strong inclination is to not bet against it.

Serena is just one of several current athletes among that magnificent career sunset happening by degrees.

In men’s tennis all-time majors winner Roger Federer also is 36, and playing here this fortnight.

Tiger Woods is 42, 10 years past his most-recent PGA Tour major win, yet showing signs in his latest comeback of finally being healthy again. But can he somehow win four more majors to tie Jack Nicklaus?

Miami_Open_Williams_V_Osaka_MJO_24
Serena Williams of USA, leaves the stadium after losing her match against Naomi Osaka of Japan, during the Miami Open tennis tournament, Wed., March 21, 2018, in Key Biscayne, Fla. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

Tom Brady is 40, continuing to defy time for the New England Patriots. But for how much longer?

LeBron James hangs onto his prime at 33, seemingly as great as ever as the Michael Jordan vs. LeBron argument for greatest ever grows closer and closer. But even LeBron will be in the past before long.

(In international sports, I would note that the concurrent mammoth careers of soccer’s twin titans find Cristiano Ronaldo 33 now, and Lionel Messi 31).

Sports has never had such a variety of all-time greats in their late careers simultaneously, but the common denominator is that the career of each remains vitally alive — and none more than Serena’s, despite Wednesday’s 6-3, 6-2 loss to rising phenom Naomi Osaka.

It was not an upset. Williams is not in tennis shape. Dressed in all black, she looked noticeably heavy, often self-consciously pulling down on the skirt over her leggings. She did most of the running and lunging in the match. Osaka, maybe The Next Big Thing, dominated.

Serena left the court to applause — the stadium announcer saying, “Ladies and gentleman, once a champion, always a champion in Miami …” — but then the frustrated superstar was seen whisked away in a car, eschewing the post-match press conference.

Once a champion, but not always one with class, alas. Serena deserves a major WTA fine for blowing off her post-match obligation. Her frustration is understandable, though, if not justified.

She has spent a career as the dominant one, and just watched the next-gen star barely half her age make Serena look, well, old.

Serena’s lack of conditioning was a given in only her second tournament back since giving birth following a difficult pregnancy. Last week at Indian Wells, she was ousted in the third round by big sister Venus. At Key Biscayne, she had the misfortune of drawing Osaka, 20, the fast-rising star from Japan whose win last week was her first in the WTA.

Miami_Open_Williams_V_Osaka_MJO_19
Serena Williams of USA, rests in timeout during the Miami Open tennis tournament, Wed., March 21, 2018, in Key Biscayne, Fla. Williams lost to Naomi Osaka of Japan. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

Osaka grew up idolizing Serena. She was 5 months old when Williams made her Miami pro debut in 1998.

Serena and husband Alexis Ohanian, the Reddit co-founder, welcomed baby daughter Alexis Olympia in September, but she makes clear motherhood and tennis are not beyond her multi-tasking capabilities.

There’s something really attractive about just being a mom — but not yet. It needs to be said in a powerful way: I absolutely want more Grand Slams. I’m well aware of the record books. I have my sights on 25. And actually, I think having a baby might help.

Serena Williams, in a recent Vogue interview

“There’s something really attractive about just being a mom — but not yet,” she said in a recent Vogue interview. “It needs to be said in a powerful way: I absolutely want more Grand Slams. I’m well aware of the record books. I have my sights on 25. And actually, I think having a baby might help.”

Her reasons why have a lot to do with the happiness the baby has delivered to her life.

“When I’m too anxious I lose matches, and I feel like a lot of that anxiety disappeared when Olympia was born,” she explained. “Knowing I’ve got this beautiful baby to go home to makes me feel like I don’t have to play another match. I don’t need the money or the titles or the prestige. I want them, but don’t need them. That’s a different feeling for me.”

None of that changed with Wednesday’s loss, or with the no-show epilogue to it.

The climb to a record 25 majors might not be easy, but would you bet against Serena?

The sunset in this epic career and in this special sports era is coming, yes. Now we wait to see how magnificent it might turn out to be.

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