Down to what sure felt like her last chance, Serena Williams came through with a cross-court forehand winner to close a 24-stroke point, then raised her arms, held that celebratory pose and looked over toward her guest box.
Finally, on her sixth try, after 1½ hours of action, she had managed to convert a break point against 27th-seeded Wang Qiang in the Australian Open’s third round.
Right then, it appeared that the comeback was on, the bid for a 24th Grand Slam singles title could continue. It turned out that Williams only was delaying a surprising defeat.
So tough at the toughest moments for so many years, Williams just could not quite do enough to put aside some shaky serving and all manner of other miscues, instead making her earliest exit at Melbourne Park in 14 years, a 6-4, 6-7 (2), 7-5 loss to Wang on Friday.
“I was optimistic that I would be able to win. I thought, ‘OK, now finish this off.’ I honestly didn’t think I was going to lose that match,” Williams said about her mindset after forcing a third set.
She began by crediting Wang but eventually shifted to criticizing herself for not playing well enough to win.
“I didn’t return like Serena. Honestly, if we were just honest with ourselves, I lost that match,” Williams said. “I can’t play like that. I literally can’t do that again. It’s unprofessional. It’s not cool.”
Williams was broken in the final game after more than 2 1/2 hours, fittingly ending things with a backhand into the net. That was her 27th unforced error on the backhand side, part of a total of 56 miscues. Wang made only 20.
“I’m better than that,” Williams said.
As Williams trudged through the long walkway that leads to the locker room, Wang was interviewed in Rod Laver Arena, telling the crowd: “I think my team always believed I can do it.”
Since grabbing major championship No. 23 at the 2017 Australian Open, while she was pregnant, Williams hasn’t added to her total.
She appeared in four major finals over the past two seasons, losing each one.
And she bowed out much, much sooner this time, animated as can be, often displaying what she later called “the signature ‘Serena frustration’ look.”
Williams owns seven trophies from the Australian Open and hadn’t lost as early as the third round since all the way back in 2006.
Here is just one measure of how unexpected this result was: The only other time these two women faced each other came at the U.S. Open last September — the only Slam quarterfinal appearance of Wang’s career — and Williams needed all of 44 minutes to dominate her way to a 6-1, 6-0 victory. The total points were 50 to 15.
“After last time,” Wang said, “I did really hard work on the court, off the court.”
Wang quickly surpassed those game and point totals Friday, thanks in large part to nearly flawless play in the first set.
She saved all four break points she faced in that set, accumulated 10 winners and made just five unforced errors. Wang picked up the lone break she needed at love with an easy forehand putaway winner that made it 5-4.
Soon enough, Williams was sailing a backhand return long to cede the set. Wang quickly went up in the second, too, and already was ahead by a break at 4-2 when she was a point away from earning another.
But Williams steadied herself there to hold. Then, when Wang served for the victory at 5-4 in the second, Williams seemed to shift the entire complexion of the match.
She was 0 for 5 on break points until then but the sixth time was the charm. On the point of the match, with both players slugging away from the baseline, it was Williams who did what it took to take it.
She was superior in the tiebreaker, too, and on they went to a third set.
“During the second set, (I was) a little bit confused. … I have to be calm, you know?” Wang said. “A little bit confused inside, but my mind always told me I had to focus on the court, focus on the point and trust myself.”
Asked whether she would party Friday night, Wang offered a simple answer: “No.”
So what were her plans?
“Rest,” she said, “and just prepare for the next match.”
That will come against 78th-ranked Ons Jabeur of Tunisia, who ended the career of Caroline Wozniacki by eliminating the 2018 Australian Open champion and former No. 1 by a 7-5, 3-6, 7-5 score.
The 29-year-old Wozniacki had announced that she would retire after this tournament and after what became her final match, she sat on her courtside chair and cried.
At least the Dane was able to quickly joke about the circumstances, saying: “It was only fitting that my last match ended with a forehand error.”
She and Williams are close friends and their matches ended around the same time. They ran into each other in the locker and “were both kind of bummed,” said Williams, who teared up herself while discussing Wozniacki.
Other winners early Friday included No. 1 Ash Barty, two-time major champion Petra Kvitova and No. 22 Maria Sakkari.
This was the first Grand Slam tournament in 11 years with each of the top 10 seeded women reaching the third round. Who would have suspected Williams would be the first to lose?
Williams was only seeded No. 8, on account of how infrequently she has competed since being away from the tour while having a baby daughter in September 2017.
But she is still about as good as it gets in women’s tennis, as evidenced by her so-close-yet-so-far Grand Slam showings of late: The 38-year-old American was the runner-up at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in both 2018 and 2019.
She started 2020 well enough, winning a hard-court tuneup title in Auckland, New Zealand, this month for her first trophy of any sort in three years — and first as a mom.
But Williams wasn’t able to carry that success to the Grand Slam level, where it matters the most to her.
“I’m way too old to play like this at this stage of my career,” Williams said. “Definitely going to be training tomorrow, that’s first and foremost — to make sure I don’t do this again.”