MELBOURNE, Australia –During this “new mom” chapter of Serena Williams’s brilliant career, even if it’s clear she’s not 100 per cent back to fighting form, it still feels as though the outcome of any match usually is on her racket.
And at 5-1 in the third set Wednesday against Karolina Pliskova, with two breaks of serve to play with and the best serve in women’s tennis history to count on, it literally was in her hands.
But the longtime No. 1, seeking her record-tying 24th career Grand Slam singles title, will have to wait until Paris.
Because in an extraordinary turn of events, Pliskova won six consecutive games – and the match.
It was a shocker. Rod Laver Arena was absolutely buzzing. And Pliskova herself may still not quite believe it.
But it happened.
Up early, down late, hanging in
“I stopped (a) little bit. Obviously she took her chance. That’s what happened. She just went for it. She went for her serves. She went for the returns. She was just putting pressure on me. I was more passive,” Pliskova said after the 6-4, 4-6, 7-5 victory.
“Then suddenly I got a chance too. That’s how it is in tennis. You need luck, of course, because this is I think not happening often, maybe once in life. But I went for it. I just said, like,’Whatever. Maybe this can be over, but let’s just try this game.’ “
For a player as good – no, great – as Williams is, things have to happen for such a monumental collapse to occur. That’s true even against a fine player like Pliskova,
And in Williams’s case, it was a rolled ankle – at 5-1, on match point, no less.
After that, she didn’t win a point on her own serve.
“I don’t think (Pliskova) gave up at all (at 1-5). Literally, I think honestly she didn’t start playing until she was down match point. I think she really gave it her all at that point. I don’t think giving up was an option for her,” Williams said. “At that point I’m just trying to think, ‘Okay, win some points, win this game.’ Then I had a couple more match points on her serve. Naturally I thought, ‘All right, here we go, you’re going to win one of these.’
“That clearly didn’t happen.”
Ankle injuries nothing new
There’s a reason Williams always has both ankles taped tightly for every match.
She’s had more than her share of ankle rolls and sprains.
No trainer, no excuses
Williams opted not to call the trainer.
As experienced as Serena is in these matters. And as tightly as her ankles are already wrapped, she may well have judged that undoing the wrapping and re-wrapping it likely was an exercise in futility.
And that was about the most a physio could have done during a medical timeout.
“I really hate calling the trainer out, to be honest. And at that point I didn’t feel like I needed it or I didn’t feel like it would be a big deal. So I just kept going,” she aid. “I like to just kind of tough it out, so to say. But, yeah, it was fine.”
She may well have thought, “I’ve got this.”
With two breaks of serve, and an opponent who couldn’t be anything but resigned to defeat, how could she not?
Serena Williams, whatever era we’re talking about, does not lose from being two breaks up in the third.
To Pliskova’s credit, it wasn’t just that Williams lost the match.
It was also that Pliskova won it.
Both had to happen; Pliskova had zero margin for error.
“I think I was just too negative those last couple games when she was going on 5-1 with myself, with the way that I had a set and break, I didn’t make it. I think I was honestly playing the best the first set so far in the tournament. I was serving well. I was just controlling all the rallies, putting pressure. I was just feeling super confident about this match today,” she said.
“Suddenly, like I said, I just lost it. It went into my head. I think she improved. It’s always kind of like changing the momentum sometimes in the tennis. I went little bit down, she went up, that was it. She was serving well. She had amazing percentage of the first serve. It was really tough to do something. … I got a chance, and I took it in the end.”
“Lights out … crazy … unbelievable”
If there’s a recurring theme in Williams’s post-loss analysis, it has usually been some version of “they always play the match of their lives against me.”
That’s often not true, of course. But it’s a good way to give her opponent credit while still letting herself off the hook a little bit.
And Serena has been unfailingly gracious with her opponents at the net after a loss in recent years.
After this one, her comments remained true to that pattern.
“I think she just played lights out on match point, literally, hitting lines. Just went for — just went crazy on match point. So I don’t think … she just played unbelievable on match point,” Williams said.
The fact that hitting her serve involved landing on that ankle (and that she didn’t win a single point on serve after turning it) was not a factor, Williams said.
“I think she just played well on my serve after that point. I think she just kind of started playing really, really good. I don’t think it had anything to do with my ankle, per se. I just think she was just nailing and hitting shots,” Williams said. “Obviously I made some mistakes, but she played really well after that.”
Who’ll be No. 1 on Monday?
The events in the fourth round of the women’s singles draw ensured there will be a new No. 1 when the new rankings come out on Monday.
For Pliskova, who can become No. 1 again if she wins the tournament, it’s an opportunity to play on. She will meet No. 4 seed Naomi Osaka in the second semifinal Thursday afternoon.
If Osaka makes the final – and Petra Kvitova doesn’t beat her on Saturday night – the 21-year-old from Japan will be the new queen of the WTA rankings.
“Before the match, this time I really believed. … I know she’s the greatest ever, but I don’t want to put her somewhere where I would not have a chance to beat her. I beat her before. She was No. 1 at that time. I knew I’m going to have my chances. But I had to play well,” Pliskova said.
“I always want to give myself a chance to beat anybody, doesn’t matter who is there. Because I was feeling confident all week and half here. There was no reason why I should for one moment think I could not beat her. … I know she maybe is struggling a little bit with this game when somebody is putting pressure on her, too, because she can hold her serve quite easily. If I can hold my serve, too, there is always going to be a chance.”
Serena will keep soldiering on
For Williams, who now won’t be able to relish a rematch of the US Open final, it’s a fourth consecutive opportunity lost to get that 24th major.
She lost in the round of 16 in Paris, in the finals both at Wimbledon and the US Open, and now in the quarterfinals in Australia.
“The big picture for me is always winning. I’m not going to sit here and lie about that,” Williams said. “But it hasn’t happened yet, but I feel like it’s going to happen. Just keep taking it one match at a time, just keep soldiering on, I guess.”