MELBOURNE, Australia – Serena Williams may well get that 24th major title, the one that would tie her with Australia’s Margaret Court for most all time and could well lead to No. 25.
THAT one would put that number away for eternity – at least on the women’s side.
And the 2020 Australian Open would have been the perfect place to do it.
Court, who won 11 of her 24 majors at the Australian Open back in the days when the event didn’t boast a full field and wasn’t what it later became, is around.
She is being recognized on the 50th anniversary of her calendar Grand Slam, despite her notably controversial and discriminatory religious views.
The only thing that would have made it a perfect full circle would have been if the organizers had decreed that Court would present the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup to her.
She had Qiang Wang, a player to whom she surrendered just ONE game at the US Open last September, in the third round. And then after that (as it turns out), she might have had unseeded Ons Jabeur.
But then, the nerves hit.
“I just made far too many errors to be a professional athlete today”
Williams said she didn’t think she was going to lose this match.
And after she fought to get back and take the second set – in part because Wang clearly remembered where she was, and who was on the other side – it seemed she might do just that.
But 38-year-old Williams – even more than 38-year-old Roger Federer – is no longer a sure thing in those situations.
The roar is still there, but it’s more muted now.
And if you’re going to roar effectively, you have to have intrinsic, unshakeable confidence that you will come back and win.
Williams’s recent efforts in Grand Slams, especially in finals, tell both her opponent and herself that the confidence is somewhat less than that.
Williams had a few words of praise for Wang.
She said she played “a little differently” than during that 6-1, 6-0 drubbing in the quarterfinals in New York in September.
But when asked to elaborate, Williams returned to what she, herself, didn’t do.
“I mean, personally I made a lot of errors. I didn’t hit any of those shots in New York or in general in a really long time. So that’s good news,” she said. “I just made far too many errors to be a professional athlete today.”
Later in her press conference, Williams said Wang served well.
“I didn’t return like Serena. Honestly, if we were just honest with ourselves, it’s all on my shoulders. I lost that match. So it is what it is,” she said.
“Like I said, it’s not about the tournament, it’s just like I can’t play like that. Like, I literally can’t do that again. That’s unprofessional. It’s not cool.”
Williams went to Auckland to get some prep matches for this Australian Open, after not playing since the US Open final against Canadian Bianca Andreescu.
She looked pretty good.
Williams won the tournament, beating four competent players ranked between 73 and 100 as well rising star Amanda Anisimova, ranked No. 25.
The elder stateswoman crushed Anisimova, 20 years younger, who was fulfilling a bucket-list item in facing Williams before she retired and clearly was overwhelmed by the prospect on that day.
She surrendered just eight games in all, in wins over Anastasia Potapova and Tamara Zidansek in the first two rounds in Melbourne.
Everything looked on target. That’s been true before, of course.
And then, she faced Wang.
Did the drubbing she inflicted upon her at Flushing Meadows give her a false sense of security? Perhaps. She also wouldn’t have known that the same drubbing didn’t discourage the 28-year-old Chinese player; it only motivated her.
What goes up, sometimes comes down
Wang went on a late-season run through Asia in 2018 that jumped her from outside the top 40, to inside the top 20. Through Hiroshima, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Beijing and Hong Kong, she went 20-4 and we started hearing all the hype about being the “next” Li Na.
Her 2019 season had its moments. And making the quarterfinal against Williams in New York lifted her to a career-best ranking of No. 12.
But she failed to win back-to-back matches during the entire Asian swing. And what had been hype, was downgraded down to hope.
Still, that match against Williams, where she was literally powered off the court, was a wakeup call. Wang focused on getting strong in the off-season. And not only was she better able to counter Williams’ power this time, she was able to create a little more power of her own.
It seems Williams was not prepared for that.
But Wang didn’t disagree that it was to a large extent on her opponent’s racket.
“For me, this match is a really aggressive match. She is play more winner than me, but that’s the way she plays,” Wang said. “I think she miss a lot today. I think that’s the point.”
Back to the Slam drawing board
The tone from Williams after this loss felt a little different than it has after she has lost in Grand Slams since returning from her maternity break. Four times, those losses have been in finals.
The last two years here in Melbourne – where she has won seven times – they have come earlier.
A year ago, she coughed up a 5-1 third-set lead to Karolina Pliskova. This year, she lost to a player she never expected to lose to.
She was mad at herself. Which is more encouraging than being somewhat shell-shocked or in denial. And it’s better than her go-to, which is that her opponent played the match of her life to beat her.
Williams quite rightly realized that was the not case this time.
She said she’s getting right back to it. And she sounded determined.
“It’s not even about the Slams, it’s about just me playing good tennis, and I didn’t do that today. That is more disappointing. So it’s not even about the win, it’s just more about I’m better than that. That is what it is for me today,” she said.
“I’m way too old to play like this at this stage of my career. It’s such a big tournament. It’s no excuse, to be honest…. I’m definitely going to be training tomorrow. That’s first and foremost, to make sure I don’t do this again.”