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[ODDS and EVENS] Serena Williams’ Absence From Tokyo Games Is Understandable, But Leaves a Void

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Serena Williams represents athletic greatness to a global audience. A high-profile tennis player for more than 20 years, she’s one of sports’ iconic superstars of the 21st century.

A prolific winner, an ultra-competitive player and a fashionista on and off the court, Serena always attracts attention. For fans and media alike, her matches are must-see tennis. 

And for the past few years, she’s juggled the demands of her job with motherhood. It’s not an easy balancing act.

During a news conference at Wimbledon, Williams confirmed that she won’t be participating in the Tokyo Olympics. But she didn’t cite a specific reason on Sunday, June 27, a day before the tournament commenced at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.

“There’s a lot of reasons that I made my Olympic decision,” the 39-year-old told reporters. “I don’t feel like going into them today, but maybe another day.”

She added: “Sorry, I have not thought about it. In the past, [the Olympics] has been a wonderful place for me. I really haven’t thought about it, so I’m going to keep not thinking about it.”

Two days after Serena’s Olympic announcement, she was forced to retire from her first-round Wimbledon match against world No. 100 Aliaksandra Sasnovich of Belarus. Williams coped with a heavy limp after slipping on the grass court in the first set. But she was unable to continue due to excruciating pain in her right leg, with the score tied 3-3 and Serena serving.

“I was heartbroken to have to withdraw today after injuring my right leg,” the sixth-seeded Williams wrote on Instagram.

“My love and gratitude are with the fans and the team who make being on Centre Court so meaningful.

“Feeling the extraordinary warmth and support of the crowd when I walked on ー and off ー the court meant the world to me.”

Williams’ departure from Wimbledon in the opening round is a huge disappointment for fans and tournament organizers. It leaves a void.

The 23-time Grand Slam singles champion and four-time Olympian elevates the level of competition in every tennis tournament she plays in.

It’s a testament to her ability and gravitas in her chosen profession, and the current world No. 8 remains focused on her years-long quest to break Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles. The Australian legend won her last Grand Slam singles title in 1973; Serena’s most recent was at the 2017 Australian Open. Since then, she’s lost four times in Grand Slam singles finals, including to Naomi Osaka at the 2018 U.S. Open.

Clearly, Williams’ focus this summer was to contend for titles at Wimbledon (the women’s final is on July 10) and the upcoming U.S. Open, which begins on August 30. Before her leg injury, perhaps Serena was erring on the side of caution and recognizing that rest between the two big tournaments might increase her chances of winning the latter.

The women’s singles tournament at the Tokyo Olympics is from July 24-31 at Ariake Tennis Park. (The growing list of other prominent tennis players to pull out of the Olympic men’s and women’s tournaments include Rafael Nadal, Simona Halep, Stan Wawrinka and Dominic Thiem.)

Family Concerns

Family is another factor that could have impacted Williams’ decision to skip the Summer Games for only the second time this century.

Serena’s daughter Olympia is 3 1/2 years old. The two are inseparable, as Olympia’s famous mother has professed, and the travel restrictions in place for the Tokyo Games due to the global pandemic clash with that reality.

Foreign spectators, including family members of athletes, are barred from attending Japan’s Olympics or entering the country because of COVID-19 protocols.

In May, Williams briefly addressed this issue last month while competing at the Italian Open.

Responding to a reporter’s query about if she’d decide to travel to Japan without Olympia, Serena gave a revealing answer.

“That’s a really good question,” Williams said. “I haven’t spent 24 hours without her, so that kind of answers the question itself. We’re best friends.”

USA Today sports columnist Nancy Armour opined on the issue of travel restrictions for Olympians who are mothers during the COVID-19 pandemic and the Tokyo Games in a May column. The headline (“COVID-19 restrictions for Tokyo Olympics shouldn’t apply to female athletes’ infants, toddlers”) spelled out Armour’s views quite clearly.

A key passage in Armour’s column underscores the uniqueness of the situation, with 150-plus countries’ residents being restricted from entering Japan unless special exceptional circumstances are found,” as stated on the Ministry of Affairs of Japan website.

“Tokyo organizers did not respond to questions about whether female athletes will be allowed to bring their young children,” Armour wrote. “IOC spokesman Christian Klaue said women athletes who want to bring their children to Tokyo will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, without providing detail on how that would be possible under Japan’s entry restrictions.”

Why would Serena want to deal with government officials and/or Tokyo 2020 officials and try to convince them that Olympia should accompany her to the Olympics? How much time and energy would that involve?

Serena’s Career in the Twilight

Staring at the hourglass, it’s clear that Williams’ time as a legitimate title threat is running out.

Under normal circumstances it’s quite possible that Serena would’ve forged ahead with plans to play at the grasscourt extravaganza in London, followed by excursions to Tokyo and New York. 

Instead, it’s likely that Williams’ illustrious Olympic career is over. But what a success story it was: three doubles gold medals (2000 Sydney Games, 2008 Beijing Games and 2012 London Games), joined by older sister Venus, and singles gold in London. 

Serena, who has won 73 singles titles (and a jaw-dropping 85% career winning percentage in mano a mano matches) and 23 more in doubles competition as a pro player, owns a remarkable wealth of memories as an Olympian, starting Down Under. Even though her title hopes were dashed at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games by Elina Svitolina in the third round, people will remember how she and Venus excelled in Olympic doubles matches en route to three golds.

Without Williams, the Olympic women’s tennis tournament won’t include the world’s most iconic female player. The headlines will be different. The highlights will be different, too.

We haven’t seen the last of Serena Williams on the global tennis stage, though, and that’s a good thing. Above all, her passion for the sport energizes the crowds and her fierce desire to win increases the competitive energy and the buzz at every tournament she enters.

Author:  Ed Odeven

Follow Ed on JAPAN Forward’s [Japan Sports Notebook] here on Sundays,  in [Odds and Evens] here during the week, and Twitter @ed_odeven.

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