By Bruce C.T. Wright
Serena Williams has quietly been inching closer to making tennis history amid all the drama surrounding Naomi Osaka‘s withdrawal from the French Open.
While much of the discussion surrounding the French Open has been about players’ mental health and the mandatory media duties that have played a role in the former for Osaka – and rightfully so — one aspect that has seemingly been overlooked is that winning the tournament would give Williams an equal number of the record 24 Grand Slam victories that’s been held for decades.
Winning the French Open would also put Williams, 39, in a good position to finally break the record while competing at the U.S. Open this summer in what’s been one of her favorite tournaments. It also can’t be ignored that not only has the world No. 1 women’s tennis player left the French Open with an injury but Osaka’s absence also likely increases Williams’ chances at winning in Paris significantly.
The last serious stab Serena took at winning a Grand Slam tournament was thwarted by Osaka, who beat her idol in straight sets — again — at the Australian Open in February. In that instance, Serena won her first five matches before advancing to face Osaka in the semifinals.
Fast-forward more than three months later and Serena has won her first three matches at the 2021 French Open, including a 6-4, 6-4 victory on Friday.
“That felt really good for me,” Williams said after winning Friday.
Osaka, meanwhile, has sparked a much larger conversation surrounding the mental health of all athletes and not just tennis players. The 23-year-old initially announced before the French Open began that she wouldn’t be doing any press because the interactions with members of the media prompted feelings of anxiety. After winning her first match and following through on her ledge against doing press, Osaka was swiftly fined. She later officially withdrew from the tournament altogether.
“I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players, and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris,” Osaka wrote in an Instagram post on Sunday. “Anyone that knows me knows I’m introverted, and anyone that has seen me at the tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety.”
Celebrities, athletes, politicians, organizations and generally people from all walks of life quickly rallied around Osaka in support and other professional sports leagues chimed in with ways in which they intend to support their athletes on a mental health level.
It seemed to be the first time a professional athlete successfully prioritized his or her mental health.
But there is one thing that should definitely put her mind at ease: Osaka is the 12th-highest-paid athlete in the world, regardless of gender, and the highest-paid female athlete ever.
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