Whether it would be from an ace off her lightning serve or a after a hard-fought rally, Serena Williams was a single point away from the Australian Open semifinals, one point away from a rematch with Naomi Osaka and nearly a step closer to a 24th Grand Slam title.
She was up, 5-1, in the third set against Karolina Pliskova and serving for the match, after dropping the first set and winning the second. First, she was called for a foot fault, and then after successfully serving, she rolled her left ankle.
No. 7 seed Pliskova — still considered the underdog against the seven-time Australian Open champion seeded 16th — fought back from being down, 40-30, to win the game and eventually eliminate Williams from the tournament Wednesday.
Pliskova survived multiple match points in her extraordinary comeback victory, 6-4, 4-6, 7-5. By simply looking at the final score on paper, it would seem that Williams — the 23-time Grand Slam champ whose last victory was in the 2017 Aussie Open — collapsed.
But she insists she did not. In her press conference afterward, when asked if this loss was one of the most unexpected or painful of her career, Williams said:
“It’s kind of hard to say because there’s nothing I did wrong on those match points. I didn’t do anything wrong. I stayed aggressive, and she just literally hit the lines on some of them, and one she had an ace or unreturnable serve. I literally did everything I could on those match points.
“It’s not like I — yeah, I can’t say that I choked on those match points. She literally played her best tennis ever on those shots, so I can’t really say that it’s incredible painful as opposed to, ‘What can I do better?’”
This is something Williams has cited before: Her opponents know they are playing against one of the greatest athletes of all time, so they elevate their game. She’s always the one to beat — regardless of world rank or tournament seed — and when her opponents rise to her level, it makes her record Grand Slam wins in the Open Era somehow even more impressive.
She’s used to playing against others who reach an “unknown” level of their own, explaining at Wimbledon last year:
“Every single match I play, whether I’m coming back from a baby or a surgery or it doesn’t matter, these young ladies bring a game that I’ve never seen before. It’s interesting because I don’t even scout as much because when I watch them play is a totally different game than when they play me. It’s what makes me great. I always play everyone at their greatest, so I have to be greater.”
Williams is better for it, even when she doesn’t win.
And she didn’t look for a scapegoat or blame her twisted ankle — she said it seems fine but often doesn’t really know until the next day — while explaining her loss. She credited Pliskova: “I think she just played lights out on match points, literally, hitting lines. Just went crazy on match points. She just played unbelievable.”
However, against Pliskova, Williams did make some mistakes. The 26-year-old Czech player impressively broke Williams’ serve and won six straight games to earn her first appearance in the Australian Open semifinals. She capitalized when Williams faltered.
And even though Williams won’t tie Margaret Court’s all-time Grand Slam win mark in this tournament, it’s clear she has no plan to stop trying.
“The big picture for me is always winning,” she said at her press conference. “I’m not going to sit here and lie about that. But it hasn’t happened yet, but I feel like it’s gonna happen, just keep taking it one match at a time and just keep soldiering on.”
Williams was one point away from beating Karolina Pliskova in the quarterfinals before ultimately losing.