SERENA WILLIAMS suffered her earliest Australian Open exit since 2006, crashing out in the 3rd round to China’s Wang Qiang on Friday (January 24).
The 38-year-old had wiped the floor with Wang in their previous meeting, losing just 15 points at last year’s US Open encounter with a dominant display.
But it was a more determined opponent who proved her ultimate downfall on the Rod Laver Arena, Williams surprisingly ousted 6-4 6-7(2) 7-5 but managing to save two match points.
Williams’ movement around the court was lacklustre compared to her 28-year-old opponent, who raised her game and played more confidently after saving a trio of break points in the sixth game.
Formidable forehand shots, which often had the veteran racing all over the court, helped seal the opening set. Wang broke to take a 5-4 advantage then snatched the lead on her service game.
Wang was on the verge of delivering the knockout blow in a fiercely fought second set, beautifully timing a series of mid-rally shots that often made Williams appear completely out of her depth.
A 24th unforced error from Williams opened game five. Yet it was her wild shots that constantly shocked the fans, which included gifting Wang the lead with a pair of further errors.
But Williams, having been crowned singles champion seven times, pulled on her vast experience and the support of the crowd to dramatically improve. She easily held her seventh game, which included a thunderous 143mph serve, to send the crowd wild as they sensed a contest was on the cards.
Yet in the following game Williams appeared to lack any firepower or desire, meekly drifting to a 5-3 reversal and suddenly facing defeat.
But record-chasing Williams staved off the threat of an early exit to Wang by holding her serve with aplomb.
In the next game each point was extremely tight, none moreso that the breathtaking 24-shot rally that the American clinched for a 40-15 lead.
With the crowd willing on a decisive third set, Williams shifted up through the gears to deny Wang the victory she was so close to by forcing a tiebreak. The veteran breezed through the lottery of a tiebreak by swiftly killing off points for the first time in the match.
After the one-sided tiebreak the final set was full of fierce rallies, Williams on the back foot throughout and having to claw her way into the contest that appeared to be slipping away from her despite games going with serve.
Williams, who started the week as tournament favourite, faced two match points and a shock exit against a player who had never progressed as far as the 4th round at a major.
Wang nervously fluffed her first chance with a long shot, and was visibly fuming after she hit the ball into the net on the next point
The drama continued with Williams’ 55th error, hitting wide to gift Wang a third opportunity to scoop a sensational triumph. Wang was much more cautious this time and you could cut the tense atmosphere with a knife when Williams thumped the ball into the net to gift her opponent a deserved victory.
This reversal means that Williams, in her 23rd season on the WTA Tour, still seeks that elusive 24th Grand Slam singles crown to match Margaret Court’s record.
But time is running out for the icon and the odds are slacked against her from ever recovering from seemingly choking in four major finals since her bid to equal the impressive record.