Things were good for the GOAT.
The greatest player of all time looked grand. Serena Williams has perfected the fine art of body suits. Troubling memories of the US Open had receded far into tennis’ rear-view mirror. The controversial umpire Carlos Ramos hadn’t worked any of her matches. She’d dropped just one set going into the quarters. Plus, it had been 16 months since she’d given birth. And, unlike the last time she played an Australian Open quarterfinal, she didn’t have a baby in her belly. But, allow us to note, at the outset of her match against Karolina Pliskova, Serena didn’t seem to have much fire in her belly. She was flat, almost passive, her play inexplicably uninspired.
The considerable Karolina Pliskova pounded her flat, crafted-in-the-Czech-Republic groundies, unleashed serves and played the best she’d played in the entire tourney as she raced to an impressive 6-4, 3-2 lead.
Then again, no one in sports knows how to flip a switch and turn it on like Serena Williams. She scratches, she blasts, she finds something within. She and Nadal are the fiercest fighters in our game. Her coach, the poet-philosopher Patrick Mouratoglou, once told us that Serena has to have “a taste of dying” before she gets going. And when Pliskova hit a backhand slice and scored a critical break to go up in the second set, Serena got that taste of dying, so to speak,.
Soon her groundies gained pace. She upgraded her returns and hit an astounding full-stretch cross-court forehand that had the Aussie throng gasping. Now Serena was into the match. She broke back, dominated and was sprinting to victory. Winning with that Serena-esque ease we’ve seen a kajillion times, she was up 5-1 with a match point. Surely she’d prevail. Even Pliskova confided that when you’re down 5-1 you think you’re going to lose.
But then the gods, or more to the point, the late great Yogi Berra, intervened. After all, as the baseball sage told us, “It ain’t over until it’s over.” Especially in tennis. You can’t run out the clock.
On Serena’s first match point, Pliskova got her on one of those hapless, yo-yo runs every player has to endure. Behind the baseline, Serena was wrong-footed. She lurched, and tweaked her left ankle. She bent over in some pain and rubbed it. And, here’s the rub – history changed.
Serena wouldn’t admit it, but she was hobbled. She said she hates to call the trainer out. She wanted to “tough it out.” Serena has her ways – champions can be stubborn. Suddenly the greatest weapon in women’s tennis history – Serena’s power serve – was muted. She didn’t win any of her remaining 10 serves – shocking!
But Williams was still up 5-2. Few doubted the supreme battler would find a way. She gained three more match points, this time on Pliskova’s serve. “Naturally,” confided Serena, “I thought, all right, here we go, you’re going to win one of these.” But she didn’t. Even GOATs falter – just ask Federer.
Later, Serena suggested, “I didn’t do anything wrong… [Karolina] just went crazy on match point…She just literally hit the lines on some of them…She literally played her best tennis ever on those shots.” But actually, Serena made errors on three of her four match points. She seemed to be at a loss amidst a stunning, almost painful free-fall. One thought, ‘How odd. This is inexplicable – almost unbelievable.’
To her credit, Pliskova stayed on task. Tall and lean, determined and experienced, she blocked out what was happening to Serena. The 2016 US Open finalist played great ball. Karolina thought, “Maybe this is over, but let’s just try this game…I want to always give myself a chance to come back against anyone.” She said, “In tennis, you need luck. This is not happening, maybe once in a life, but I went for it. Normally you have comebacks – but nothing like this.”
Now Serena has exited from back-to-back Slams in stunning fashion. This time there were neither tears nor fears – just regrets. Serena said she just has to do the little things she used to do: “Play lights out when I have match points…This is when you go psycho…just like, go bananas on it.”
We can now only imagine what the rematch of the Serena vs. Naomi Osaka US Open might have been like. And what would have happened if Serena had tied Margaret Court’s record of 24 Slams here in Melbourne, in the Aussie’s back yard. But, then again, Serena has not prevailed in any of the eight tournaments she’s played since she’s returned from her pregnancy. Plus, she takes her time when she’s trying to reach historic marks. “22 was close for a long time, 18 was close forever,” Serena sighed.
In other words, it took a long time for her to equal the American record of 18 Slams won by Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova and the Open era record of 22 Slams held by Steffi Graf.
Now, unsparing tennis historians wonder, does Serena hold a far more dubious mark? Up 5-1 in the third set, with two breaks and a match point in hand, she was serving for the match and lost six straight games to suffer a crunching defeat that shook her and the tennis universe.
Yes, there have been plenty of other late-match fails. Many others have fallen off cliffs at crunch time. Jana Novotna was up 4-1 over Graf in the third set in the 1993 Wimbledon final, and her implosion led her to shed poignant tears on a Duchess’ shoulder. Gabriella Sabatini fell to Mary Joe Fernandez at the 1993 French Open. Michael Pernfors was the victim of a shock comeback by Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon in 1987.
Serena is bigger than life – a champion on-court and an icon around the world. But goodness, her free-fall was an out-of-nowhere shock and a loss for the ages, and dare we suggest, the greatest big-stage collapse in the history of the game.