Serena Williams arrived at the Australian Open as the red-hot favourite but left it in pain after what she described as the worst two weeks she had ever experienced at a Grand Slam tournament.
Having struggled to overcome an ankle injury sustained in the first round, Williams hurt her back in the quarter-finals yesterday and was beaten 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 by Sloane Stephens. It was Williams's first defeat for five months and her first at a Grand Slam tournament since last year's French Open.
Williams said she was "almost relieved that it's over because there's only so much I felt I could do". She explained: "I've had a tough two weeks between the ankle, which is like this big every day, and my back, which started hurting."
It says much for the 15-times Grand Slam champion's ability and resilience that she got as far as she did with the ankle injury she sustained in a fall last week. The world No 3 dropped only eight games en route to the quarter-finals and was a set up against her American protégé when she hurt her back in the eighth game of the second set.
One bookmaker reported that Williams was 750-1 on in in-play betting at one stage, but the injury changed the match. Williams left the court for treatment, but thereafter there were times when she barely served at half-pace, while her movement was clearly impaired.
Williams's frustrations got the better of her when she smashed a racket in the third set. "I even had a wry smile on my lips after that," she said. "It made me happy, unfortunately."
Stephens, meanwhile, handled her first Grand Slam quarter-final with great composure. Having started tentatively, she went on the attack after going 2-0 down in the second set. "From then on I got aggressive, started coming to the net more," she said.
Before Stephens left the court she checked her phone for messages. She revealed later that she had received more than 200 texts and that her number of Twitter followers had just doubled to 35,000.
"I thought it was free to receive text messages, but someone told me otherwise," the 19-year-old said. "My phone bill is going to be crazy and my mum is going to be like, 'Oh, my God, your phone bill. The money you were going to buy yourself something nice with, you're going to pay your phone bill'."
In today's semi-finals Stephens was meeting Victoria Azarenka, a 7-5, 6-1 winner over Svetlana Kuznetsova, while Maria Sharapova was taking on Li Na.