Tennis fans have been left heartbroken after Serena Williams broke down in tears before leaving her Australian Open press conference on Thursday.
The 23-time grand slam champion's bid to equal Margaret Court's record was crushed after a ruthless display from Naomi Osaka in their semi-final clash at Melbourne Park.
Turning 40 in September, Williams's latest quest to match Margaret Court's all-time record of 24 grand slam singles crowns ended in a shattering 6-3 6-4 loss to Osaka.
'BIG GOODBYE': Fans erupt after Serena's 'strange' gesture
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.
Those fears that fans had seen the last of Williams at the Australian Open only intensified during a post-match press conference that many supporters described as "tough to watch".
The American choked backed tears as she answered questions, before refusing to let on whether the latest heartbreaking defeat was her last at Melbourne Park.
"I don't know. If I ever say farewell, I wouldn't tell anyone," Williams said.
"So ..: I don't know. The Aussie crowd is so amazing, so it was nice to see."
Williams has been stranded one shy of Court's record since capturing her 23rd grand slam title at Melbourne Park four years ago with victory over her older sister Venus while three months pregnant with her daughter Olympia.
The 39-year-old has since suffered four grand slam final defeats - two at Wimbledon and two at the US Open - and was left devastated by her straight-sets loss to Osaka.
"The difference today was errors. I made so many errors," Williams 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, Williams was in no mood to reveal her plans.
Here’s Serena choking up and walking out on her press conference pic.twitter.com/99YwaDWBlI
— Dan Wolken (@DanWolken) February 18, 2021
"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."
Williams was then asked whether her unforced error count was "just one of those bad days at the office".
The seven-time Australian Open champion began to answer the question but suddenly broke down in tears and cut the post-match press conference short.
Teary Serena leaves fans heartbroken
Then, breaking down in tears, the seven-times Australian Open champion
"I don't know," Williams said. "I'm done."
Many of Williams' fans said they were brought to tears watching the interview, with many taking it as a sign that her retirement is imminent.
Serena Williams just broke my heart during that press conference. #AusOpen
— BLACK LIVES MATTER 😷 (@HotTinyBiscuit) February 18, 2021
Oh man! #Serena's press conference just now was heartbreaking.
I've openly said she wasn't my number one on court just cos I have had others I loved more just thru preference but as an athlete how can u not respect the fight & power she has for the sport.I'm sad now #AusOpen
— Victoria Wai 📷 (@Victoria__Wai) February 18, 2021
serena leaving the press conference crying i really hope she stays just a few more opens :(
— kev 🌹 (@filipinorbit) February 18, 2021
That press conference from Serena 💔😭
— Ryan (@rljackson89) February 18, 2021
Serena just walked out the press conference crying... 🥺😢 #AO2021
— Earl “Turk” Mackie (@e_jordan99) February 18, 2021
— Steven A. Horn (@SteveAHorn) February 18, 2021
Omg Serena left her press conference crying 🥺
— Dishon King (@kingdishon_) February 18, 2021
They just showed Serena’s press conference. Her subsequent reaction after being asked that question about her saying farewell... wow. tough to watch :(
— aidan (@vamosaidan) February 18, 2021
Serena getting emotional at her press conference. It’s sad to see that this might be close to the end for her.
— Michael Memis (@MemisMichael) February 18, 2021
Awww Serena broke down in her press conference! She knows the end is near! 🥺
— HBCU HIVE (@hbcuhive) February 18, 2021