MELBOURNE — Serena Williams may have won 23 major singles titles and more than 800 matches over her unrivaled career but time, as the saying goes, is undefeated—and time won again here today.
Looking like the 38-year old woman she is, Williams fell, shockingly, in the third round of the 2020 Australian Open to 27-seed Wang Qiang of China, 6-4, 6-7, 7-5—a player she just beat in 44 minutes at the 2019 US Open. All credit to Wang (more on her in moment) but Serena was far removed from her best today. She committed scads of errors (56), she was frequently off balance, and her shots couldn’t find the range when they mattered most.
Walking off the court, Serena offered a gracious wave, but she must be devastated. She has made no secret of her desire to tie and top Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 majors. Though Serena is three years removed from wining her 23rd, this event provided a real opportunity. Earlier this month, she won the title in Auckland—her first tournament win since her 2018 return from motherhood. She won her first two matches here with little drama, her power masking any deficit in movement. And the draw and conditions were bending to her liking.
Today, however, was a crowbar in all of that momentum. When a champion of this magnitude falls this early and surprisingly, the loss is inevitably the headline. But let’s take a moment to acknowledge Wang. At the previous major she didn’t just lose to Serena Williams, she was humiliated—winning just one game at the shortest match of the tournament. To say she exorcised that memory would be to traffic an understatement. Not nearly as powerful as Serena but a full decade younger, Wang moved gracefully and prolonged points with her defense. Often on that extra ball, Serena committed an error.
After winning the first set, 6-4, and serving for the match at 5-4, it looked as though the moment would get to her. Serena thundered back winning the second set 7-6, and it looked like it would be another vintage Williams comeback. Wang, however, steadied and closed out the match with unflustered play.
She will play Tunisia’s Ona Jabeur—it’s a global industry, tennis— in the next round. Jabeur ended the career of Caroline Wozniacki, beating the 2018 champ in three sets. This marked Wozniacki’s final match, though she’ll surely be a part of the tennis firmament in some form.
As for Serena’s future….well. Before the career buzzards start circling, let’s point out she has reached the finals of four of the last seven majors, and is 12 days removed from winning a title. But this may have represented her last best chance at No. 24. And watching her fail to summon her best, recalled watching, say Tom Brady this season.
Boneyards are filled with those who have doubted Serena. She made a career-long habit of jack-knifing conventional wisdom. But today we saw an immortal looking mortal, tennis’ answer to Tom Brady.
She’ll likely be back on the case for 24. First at the French Open and then, more realistically, at Wimbledon. But a window, already closing, lost a bit more altitude today.