MELBOURNE, Australia -- It wasn't merely that Serena Williams was the top seed entering the 2014 Australian Open. Having lost no matches since August, it was hard to envision a scenario in which it was even conceivable she would lose. An act of god, perhaps. Maybe an injury, as has been the case here two years running.
Well, Serena survived the former, making it into Week Two after the apocalyptic heat wave. And while she clearly wasn't in full health today, that wasn't ultimately her undoing either. (Serena admitted to suffering back issues this tournament and her coach Patrick Mouratoglou said she almost pulled out before her match against Daniela Hantuchova because of it.) In the upset of the tournament — perhaps the year — Serena fell in the fourth round this afternoon, 6-4, 3-6, 3-6, because Serbia's Ana Ivanovic played the match of her life, a mix of bold ballstriking, unflustered play and brilliant strategy.
"I don't want to blame anything, Williams said. "I feel like Ana deserves all the credit. I feel she played unbelievable today. I think she went for her shots."
Misleading as tennis stats can be, in this case, the scoresheet serves as forensic evidence. Ivanovic won more points overall and 16 more points returning. She hit 20 forehand winners to Serena's two. Ivanovic won more points behind her first serve. In short, she "out-Serena'ed" Serena. "How did it happen?" Ivanovic giddily asked after the match.
Good question. In the first set, Ivanovic gave as good as she got, hanging with Williams from the baseline and taking advantage of her opponent's slowed movement. Williams won the set 6-4, an act of theft. But in Ivanovic's box, her supporters nodded knowingly, akin to boxing corner-men who knew their fighter may have lost the round, but had a chance of winning the bout.
At 2-2 in the second set, Ivanovic scored a break, dialing in her forehand. Her tactic of standing well inside the baseline for Serena's second serves, worked to perfection. When Ivanovic whistled forehand returns past Serena, it didn't just win the point; it disseminated doubt. Ivanovic won the second set 6-3 and then, more impressively, sustained her level. She continued maneuvering the ball as if she'd sent it to obedience school; continued matching (and surpassing) Serena's power rallies; continued punishing her returns; and continued to play well on the most important points.
Early in the third set, Ivanovic mishit a backhand, that was clearly headed wide. The ball clipped the netpost, took a hard right, and then landed in the court. It was around then, it became clear that the Fates had written the storyline. Ivanovic scored an early break in the second game, clung to it for dear life, holding serve four more times, and finished with aplomb, 6-3.
"It's not like I gave her the match," Williams said. "I tried to fight the best I could today. I think Ana just played a really good match. She did what it takes to win."
The 2008 French Open winner, Ivanovic has spent the last half-decade in tennis' no-man's land, her potent groundstrokes so often undercut by shaky mental performance. She's cycled through coaches. She tinkered with rackets. She experimented with sports psychologists. Little seemed to work. On power alone, she could reside in the top 20. But, before today, only once in the last 20 Majors had she made it beyond the fourth round of a Major.
She began 2014, though, by winning Auckland, her first title since 2011. Ironically, she beat Venus Williams in the final. And, today for two hours, she played an immaculate match, free of the doubts and fragility that have plagued her for so long.
In the course of one match, the entire 2014 narrative in women's tennis has been rewritten. Before the event aficionados —including Mouratoglou — were speculating favorably on Serena's chances of winning the Grand Slam, all four Majors. Here we are less than a month into the year and that possibility has been eliminated. Instead we have others.