Australian Open 2019: Serena Williams out after stunning defeat to Karolina Pliskova

Williams led 5-1 in the decider before failing to convert four match points and losing six games in a row as Pliskova reached the semi-finals for the first time

Paul Newman
Wednesday 23 January 2019 08:11
Who has the most grand slams wins in tennis?

Where Serena Williams goes, drama will follow. The point was emphasised in extraordinary fashion in the quarter-finals here at the Australian Open on Wednesday as the 37-year-old American was beaten 6-4, 4-6, 7-5 by Karolina Pliskova after suffering her biggest collapse in 20 years competing at Grand Slam level.

Having fought her way back after losing the first set, Williams led 5-1 in the decider before failing to convert four match points and losing six games in a row as Pliskova reached the semi-finals for the first time. On Thursday the world No 8 will take on Naomi Osaka, who beat an ailing Elina Svitolina 6-4, 6-1 in just 72 minutes.

Williams, who remains stuck on 23 Grand Slam titles, one short of Margaret Court’s all-time record, might have suffered more controversial meltdowns in the past, such as her run-in with the umpire at last year’s US Open, but this was her most spectacular fall from a match-winning position.

Serving at 5-1 and 40-30 in the final set, Williams hit what appeared to be an ace on her first serve but was foot-faulted. After her second serve she appeared to turn her ankle and went on to net a forehand. She then double-faulted at deuce and missed a backhand on break point as a grateful Pliskova was thrown a lifeline.

Williams did not move as well for the remainder of the match, but did not send for the trainer and had three more match points when Pliskova served at 4-5. The 26-year-old Czech, who is a formidable ball-striker, saved all three by going for broke, though Williams might have done much better on the second of them when she failed to take advantage of a weak second serve.

The best server in the history of women’s tennis lost all 13 points played on her serve after injuring her ankle, hitting three double faults in the process. When Pliskova served at 6-5 she went 40-0 up with a sensational half-volley backhand down the line winner. Williams saved the first two match points but on the third hit a forehand into the net. At the end both players seemed as stunned as each other.

Afterwards Williams refused to blame her defeat on her ankle. “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 said.

“She just played well on my serve after that point. I think she just started playing really, really well. I don't think it had anything to do with my ankle. She was just nailing and hitting shots.Obviously I made some mistakes, but she played really well after that.”

She added: “At that point I was just trying to think: ‘OK, 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.

Williams is out of the tournament 

“There’s nothing I did wrong on those match points. I didn't do anything wrong. I stayed aggressive. She just literally hit the lines on some of them.One she hit an ace, an unreturnable serve. I literally did everything I could on those match points. I can't say that I choked on those match points. She literally played her best tennis ever.”

Williams has never lost a Grand Slam match before from such a commanding position, though she has lost previously when a break up in the deciding set. In 2001 she led Martina Hingis 4-1 but went on to lose the final set 8-6. In the fourth round at Wimbledon in 2013 she led Sabine Lisicki 3-0 and 4-2 in the final set but lost it 6-4.

Pliskova said it had been the best comeback of her career. “I really went for my shots,” she said. “I didn't feel like she played really badly in that game [at 5-1]. Maybe the double fault was a big help. Otherwise, I don't think she did anything actually that bad. I thought she was missing a bit more but I was more aggressive.”

Pliskova is through to the last four

The Czech said that she had lost momentum in the second set. “I wasn’t playing the same game that I had been playing, which had been working until then,” she said.

“I was pushing her. I was more aggressive.I stopped little bit, but obviously she took her chance. 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.

“Then suddenly I got a chance too. That's how it is in tennis. You need luck, of course, because this doesn’t happen often, maybe once in a lifetime, but I went for it. I just said: ‘Maybe this is over, but let's just try this game.’ I was with the wind, which kind of helped me little bit. I just went for my shots.”

Williams' chances are over for another year (REUTERS)

Williams, who had not played a competitive match since last year’s US Open before arriving here, agreed that she would need to look at her future schedule. She insisted she still had the fire to win more Grand Slam titles. Asked where would be her best chance to win another one she said the French Open, simply because it is the next on the calendar.

The American said her comeback following pregnancy – she returned in March after a 14-month break - had not been easy but added: “From day one, I expect to go out and, quite frankly, to win. That hasn't happened. But I do like my attitude. I like that I don't want to go out there and say: ‘I expect to lose because I had a year off. I've been playing for 10 months. I'm not supposed to win.’ I don't have that attitude.”

Osaka had way too much power for Svitolina, who struggled with the neck and shoulder problem that has troubled her throughout the tournament. While Osaka went for her shots and found a consistently good length, Svitolina kept hitting short. Osaka’s tally of 31 winners compared with Svitolina’s 11 told their own story.

Williams leaves the court after her defeat 

Svitolina’s underpowered serve was a major weakness. Osaka, who hit eight aces in the match, had an average first serve speed of 108mph, while Svitolina averaged only 99mph, but it was the Ukrainian’s second serve that was regularly punished.

Although Svitolina retrieved a break midway through the first set she was broken again at 4-5 when she netted a backhand on Osaka’s fourth set point.

Two successive double faults at the start of her first service game was not the way Svitolina wanted to start the second set, in which she lost the first five games. Osaka eventually went to match point with an ace before rounding off her victory with a smash.

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