Serena Williams tumbled out of the Australian Open in the third round on Friday, eliminated by an opponent who had previously been one of her least daunting.
The eighth-seeded Williams, a seven-time Australian Open champion, lost to 27th-seeded Wang Qiang of China, 6-4, 6-7 (2), 7-5. It was their first meeting since last September in the United States Open quarterfinals, when Williams had routed Wang, 6-1, 6-0, in only 44 minutes, one of the easiest victories of her long career.
Wang, 28, who normally tries to dictate play with her flat, aggressive groundstrokes, did not hit a single winner in that match, seemingly frozen with fear under the floodlights in New York.
In Friday’s rematch, Wang’s readiness to battle was quickly apparent. She hung tough on her serve, saving four break points before breaking the 38-year-old Williams in the ninth game for a 5-4 lead, and then holding serve a game later to claim the opening set. Wang hit 10 winners in the set, and only five unforced errors. Williams hit 13 winners, but 18 unforced errors.
Wang broke again in the fifth game of the second set for a 3-2 lead, and extended her lead to 5-3. But when she served for the match at 5-4, Williams summoned her best tennis of the afternoon, punishing the serves that Wang aimed at her backhand, and outlasting her in a 24-shot rally to finally convert on her sixth break-point opportunity. She closed the set with a cross-court forehand winner and then threw her arms high in the air.
Williams fired down strong serves to save two break points on her serve in the next game. After Wang held to force a tiebreaker, Williams reeled off four straight points to take it, 7-2.
In the third set, Wang managed to close out Williams, who saved two match points before falling, to advance to the fourth round.
At the same time as Williams battled on Rod Laver Arena, her close friend Caroline Wozniacki played the final match of her career on Melbourne Arena, falling by 7-5, 3-6, 7-5 to Ons Jabeur of Tunisia.
Williams and Wozniacki would have faced one another in the fourth round had both advanced, but underdogs not known for big-stage bravery bettered both.
The loss for Williams brought a premature end to her latest bid to equal Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles, and marked her earliest exit at the Australian Open since she lost in the third round in 2006. Before reaching the Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals last year, Williams lost in the third round of the French Open last year, 6-2, 7-5 to the American Sofia Kenin.
But unlike her loss at the French Open, a tournament in which she arrived lacking preparation after months of struggling with a knee injury, Williams appeared to be an in-form contender in Melbourne, and was the oddsmakers’ favorite for the title. Williams did not play any tournaments last year after the U.S. Open — she has avoided the fall swing of the tennis season since 2015 — but showed promise early this season, winning her first title in three years at a small WTA tournament in Auckland, New Zealand, which she called a “monkey off my back.”
Serena at Grand Slams since her return to the tour in 2018
French Open R4
US Open F
Aussie Open QF
French Open R3
US Open F
Aussie Open R3
At any age, this would be remarkable
— Christopher Clarey (@christophclarey) January 24, 2020
The larger burden of Court’s record, however, will remain. After her first-round win here, Williams acknowledged that the pressure of chasing Court had affected her in the past, but she insisted that she was now only focused on herself.
“I think it’s factored a lot into my game,” Williams said of the record for Grand Slam titles. “And now it’s just more or less about doing the best that Serena Williams can do. Margaret Court was a wonderful, great champion. And now how great is Serena Williams? That’s it. That’s kind of what I have been thinking about the last couple of weeks and months. It definitely helps me relax a lot.”
Wozniacki, who spent 71 weeks at the No. 1 ranking, starting in 2010 and most recently in 2018 after a long-awaited first Grand Slam title here, had pulled off one last signature victory in the second round, coming back from double-break deficits of 1-5 in the first set and 0-3 in the second set to beat 23rd-seeded Dayana Yastremska, 7-5, 7-5.
Smiling through tears in an on-court presentation after her loss to Jabeur, Wozniacki self-deprecatingly joked that the two-hour, seven-minute match had been a fitting finale to her career.
“I think it was only fitting that my last match would be a three-setter, a grinder, and that I would finish my career with a forehand error,” Wozniacki joked about her weakest stroke. “It was one of those things I’ve been working on my whole career, but I guess it’s just meant to be.”