Serena Williams appeared to have booked her spot in the Australian Open semifinal. After a listless first set, she’d locked in to take the second, then run up a 5-1 lead on Karolina Pliskova in the third. Up two breaks, with the match on her racket, she had plenty of breathing room. And then her left foot became the axis around which the whole match turned. First the foot crept onto the baseline during a serve and a linesperson called out a foot fault, annulling what would’ve been the ace that sealed the match.
Williams delivered her second serve, still on match point, and got caught in a tense rally. Pliskova played a ball deep into Serena’s forehand, then hit a deceptive ball back into the same corner, forcing Serena to rapidly change directions. That sent her left foot turning inward, tweaking an already-wrapped ankle. She was left flat-footed as she tried to stretch for the next shot.
Williams went on to lose the next two points and the game to maintain a 5-2 edge in the deciding set. Even at this point, she did not have much cause for panic, given the generous cushion of that lead. But the rest of the match hardly resembled anything that came before. Serena would not win another point on her serve. One of the great servers in the history of the game lost all 10 points on serve after that ankle tweak: three off double-faults, five off unforced errors, two off Pliskova winners.
Curiously, Williams never called a physio to have her ankle looked at it, even as she lost five straight games and the match, 4-6, 6-4, 5-7. To hear her tell it in the press conference, it was Pliskova’s improved play, and not the ankle, that explained the upheaval. “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 after the match. “I don’t think it had anything to do with my ankle, per se. I just think she was just nailing and hitting shots.” It’s admirable that she didn’t take the excuse and wanted to credit her opponent, but it’s also a bit hard to believe, given the visible and statistical downturn in her play.
Serena did break open some new chances to win the match in her return games, knowing she was just a handful of vicious groundstrokes away from the semifinal. She was taking huge cuts at the ball to end points—a hallmark of hampered mobility—and trying to scrounge a few clean winners. Pliskova, it appeared, was taking the exact opposite tack: lengthening points wherever possible, passing up put-away opportunities for safer shots, and working the ankle, willing to sacrifice the occasional point if it meant depleting Serena’s physical resources in the long term. (Playing tennis tactically well can involve a certain degree of cruelty.) But Williams’s big hitting nevertheless earned her three more match points. First at 5-4, 15-40, erased by a Pliskova backhand winner:
Then on the very next point, Pliskova managed to recover from a brutal return to claim the point:
In the same game, Pliskova wiped out the fourth and last match point with a well-placed one-two punch:
“Yeah, I can’t say that I choked on those match points. She literally played her best tennis ever on those shots,” Williams said afterward, and while it might be a bit of an overstatement, Pliskova did play well to close all those doors. Serena, still in pursuit of Slam No. 24 and Margaret Court’s record, saw her Australian Open end in surreal fashion, with victory just a hair’s breadth away but her body apparently unable to get her there. That six-game swing was difficult to watch from an emotional standpoint, and straight-up unnatural from a tennis standpoint—from 5-1, match point to 5-7, loss. Serena herself seemed fairly zen about it all, though. “It’s a good learning experience to know the next time that I have match point, like, okay, just like go bananas on it,” she said, and then left.