AUSTRALIAN OPEN 2023: Tennis sans Serena starts in earnest

Jan 9, 2023, 2:09 PM | Updated: Jan 10, 2023, 4:10 am
FILE - Serena Williams waves to fans after losing to Ajla Tomljanovic in the third round of the U.S...

FILE - Serena Williams waves to fans after losing to Ajla Tomljanovic in the third round of the U.S. Open tennis championships, Friday, Sept. 2, 2022, in New York. The Australian Open will be the first Grand Slam tournament since Serena Williams walked away from tennis and played her farewell match in New York at the U.S. Open. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

(AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

Tennis will move on from Serena Williams. It has to. Might not be easy, mind you, given what a transcendent figure she was, on the court and off. But that is what sports do, even when superstars leave. They all leave, of course, and sports always move on.

The matches will be played, new stars will emerge, fans will continue to watch. And Williams will be missed, of course. By spectators. By executives from the tours, tournaments and television. By other athletes.

And as the 2023 Australian Open gets started Monday (Sunday night EST), the first Grand Slam tournament to be held since she walked away with a farewell at the U.S. Open in September, shortly before her 41st birthday — the owner of 23 major singles championships said she preferred the term “evolving” to “retiring” — tennis will get a real taste of what a post-Serena world looks like on a big stage.

That is the case even if her impact won’t fade away, as U.S. Open tournament director Stacey Allaster put it: “She leaves an indelible legacy of grace and grit that will inspire athletes, female and male, for many generations to come.”

There surely will be those who keep an eye on tangible data during the two weeks at Melbourne Park and as this season, and future seasons, go along. Numbers such as attendance figures and TV ratings will be parsed in an effort to gauge what effect there is from the departure of someone who earned status as a just-one-name-necessary celebrity.

In a way, that is all a bit beside the point, however.

“Her legacy is really wide, to the point where you can’t even describe it in words. She changed the sport so much. She’s introduced people that have never heard of tennis into the sport,” said Naomi Osaka, a 25-year-old from Japan who has won four Grand Slam titles but hasn’t played a full match since August and will sit out the Australian Open. “I honestly think that she’s, like, the biggest force in the sport. That’s not intentionally trying to make (Roger) Federer or (Rafael) Nadal smaller. I just think she’s the biggest thing that will ever be in the sport.”

In recent decades, folks might have worried about what would happen when Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova stopped playing. Or when Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors moved on. Or Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. Or Steffi Graf. And so on.

“It’s always a loss when you have great players leave. But I’ve been through six or seven generations of this,” said Billie Jean King, a two-time inductee into the International Tennis Hall of Fame who won 12 Grand Slam trophies in singles and another 27 in women’s or mixed doubles.

“I mean, I remember when Sampras left and when Martina and Chris left. I was like, ‘Oh, no! What’s going to happen?’ Well, Sampras was there, and guess what? There’s Roger Federer. There’s Nadal. … It’s the same thing with the women. We’ve got Iga (Swiatek) now, who’s taken over,” King said. “Every generation gets better, and the depth of women’s tennis is better than it’s ever been, and Serena is somewhat responsible for that, because every generation builds on the last generation.”

Shortly after Williams lost to Ajla Tomljanovic in the third round at Flushing Meadows, another titan of tennis, 20-time major champ Federer, announced his retirement. Federer hadn’t played an official match in more than a full year because of a series of knee operations.

For Williams, there were moments when she stepped away from competing for stretches, either because of health issues or simply because she wanted to spend time on other interests, which she thought contributed to her longevity.

WTA CEO and Chairman Steve Simon thinks those gaps left room for some new faces to emerge in women’s tennis, such as current No. 1 Swiatek and American teenager Coco Gauff.

“Serena has played what I would call a limited schedule over the last several years, anyway. So clearly, we have a new set of stars that are coming in and certainly establishing themselves and doing well,” Simon said. “But I see us continuing to celebrate Serena — and I hope she comes back and plays another five or 10 years.”

Good luck with that.

But those she brought to tennis, whether players or fans, should last long beyond that timeframe.

“Serena got a lot of people interested in our sport. And now it’s up to the next generation to do that,” King said. “People always — the media — goes into this every time: ‘Oh, they’re leaving! Oh, what’s going to happen?’ Somebody always comes up to the top. The cream rises to the top.”

___

Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at https://twitter.com/HowardFendrich

___

AP tennis: https://apnews.com/hub/tennis and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

Orlando Magic's Paolo Banchero makes an uncontested dunk against the Boston Celtics during the seco...
Associated Press

Paolo’s diary: The Magic are figuring out what it takes

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Orlando Magic rookie and No. 1 overall draft pick Paolo Banchero is doing a periodic diary with The Associated Press this season to chronicle his first year in the NBA. This is his third installment. The Magic had the worst record in he league through the first 25 games of his rookie […]
1 day ago
Novak Djokovic of Serbia hugs the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup in the locker-room after defeating S...
Associated Press

Djokovic back at top of ATP rankings; Sabalenka No. 2 in WTA

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Novak Djokovic’s Australian Open championship returned him to a rather familiar spot on Monday: No. 1 in the ATP rankings. His four-place rise from No. 5 to replace Carlos Alcaraz at No. 1 is the largest jump to the top spot in the 50-year history of the computerized rankings for men’s […]
1 day ago
Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland follows his ball on the 9th hole during the final round of the Dub...
Associated Press

McIlroy overcomes Reed, wins Dubai Desert Classic by 1 shot

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Rory McIlroy overcame a final-round charge from Patrick Reed to win the Dubai Desert Classic in a tense Monday duel between players who were involved in a pre-tournament spat. The top-ranked McIlroy rolled in a birdie putt from around 15 feet at the par-5 No. 18 for a 4-under […]
1 day ago
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts, center, reacts while speaking toTerry Bradshaw, left, ...
Associated Press

Analysis: Mahomes, Hurts set for historic Super Bowl matchup

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Black quarterbacks have come a long way in the NFL since Fritz Pollard became the first to play in the league in 1923 and Doug Williams was the first to start and win a Super Bowl following the 1987 season. Now, Patrick Mahomes and Jalen Hurts will be the first Black QBs […]
1 day ago
Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton (21) speaks with Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick M...
Associated Press

Bengals’ Ossai laments late hit in AFC title loss to Chiefs

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Joseph Ossai stood in front of his clean-out locker inside Arrowhead Stadium, while Bengals teammate B.J. Hill stood by for support, and lamented a mistake Sunday night that could easily haunt the defensive end for the rest of his career. The Kansas City Chiefs were driving for a potential winning […]
1 day ago
Kansas City Chiefs place kicker Harrison Butker (7) is lifted in the air after his game-winning fie...
Associated Press

Super Bowl 57: Chiefs, Eagles meet for title in Arizona

Patrick Mahomes finally got the best of Joe Burrow. All he needed was a little shove. Harrison Butker made a 45-yard field goal with 3 seconds left — after Cincinnati’s Joseph Ossai was flagged for a 15-yard penalty for shoving Mahomes after he was out of bounds — and the Chiefs beat the Bengals 23-20 […]
1 day ago
AUSTRALIAN OPEN 2023: Tennis sans Serena starts in earnest