Blimey, that’s torn it. Serena Williams out of the Australian Open? Surely some mistake?
The nailed-on favourite done in three sets by Ana Ivanovic? That can’t be right. But it is.
One of the greatest players the women’s game has ever seen, the woman who was chasing her 18th Grand Slam title, was outgunned, outwitted and outplayed by Ivanovic 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 at Rod Laver Arena on Sunday.
Admittedly, Ivanovic was helped by the fact that Williams was struggling with a bad back, an injury she has been carrying for a few days and one that made her consider pulling out before her last match, but it did not make the news any less shocking.
And it did not make the repercussions any less dramatic.
Williams’s departure did not so much open up the draw as ripped it to shreds. The world No.1 has not just dominated the women’s tour of late, she has been like a juggernaut, steamrolling her way to victory around the globe.
Now, before anyone gets upset and thinks that we are comparing the world No.1 to a 'Mack truck' or an articulated 18-wheeler, the dictionary definition of juggernaut is: “an overwhelming, advancing force that crushes or seems to crush everything in its path.”
Yep. That’d be Serena, all right. She cruised into the second week here, back problem or not, flattening anyone who dared to stand in her path. Then again, that is what she has been doing for the past 12 months.
Since she lost here in the quarterfinals last year to a combination of a sprained ankle and Sloane Stephens, she had only been beaten three times.
No matter what the event, however big or small, the No.1 powered her way through the rounds and picked up the silverware. Eleven titles have been collected in that time, from the USD$40,000 she picked up for winning in Bastad (Sweden) to the USD$3,555,715 she pocketed for winning the US Open, as Williams became the unstoppable force in women’s tennis.
And then Ivanovic stopped her.
It was clear from the very first game that all was not well with the former champion.
Her opening service game set the tone: begin with an ace, throw in three winners, two errors, two double faults and then save three break points. No, this was not the Serena we have come to know.
Regardless, an opponent still has to have the nerve to beat the Great One and, over the years, very few women have found that courage at a major championship. It takes bottle to beat Serena on a centre court, even if she is injured and clearly hobbling.
“I was just trying to do the best I could today,” Williams said. “Maybe I wasn't the best physically, but that had nothing to do with it. I think Ana just played a really good match. She did what it takes to win.
“I obviously wasn't hitting the way I normally would hit and wasn't moving the way I normally would move and making a lot of errors that I normally would not make and I haven't made in a couple of years. But it's OK. I feel like I know for a fact I can play so much better than what I did today, so with that, knowing that, I'm not disappointed or anything. I just know that I can play ten times better than what I did today.”
The error-count rose with every rally: Williams could not move her feet, she could not generate her usual power and precision and she could not cope with Ivanovic’s free-swinging game. Just as she had in the final two sets of her win over Sam Stosur, the Serb was whacking her forehand and, crucially, keeping her nerve.
She had never taken so much as a set from Williams in four previous meetings so when her old foe took the opening set, things were not looking too good for the No.14 seed. But the Ana Ivanovic of 2014 is a different woman – this year, she has self-belief and that, in turn, allows her to be a little calmer on the court. Maybe the pulse was racing a little as she sped towards the finish line but with two love service games to close out the match, she was keeping everything under control.
“I had to remind myself all the time just to stay in the moment,” Ivanovic said. “Because there were moments in the match where it could have gone either way. I could have just made a few more errors. But I really just believed in my game and stepped up when I needed to.”
With Williams on her way home, everyone fancies their chances for the title now. And having waited so long and having been through so many disappointments since she won the French Open in 2008, Ivanovic reckons her claim to the trophy is as good as anyone’s.
She still has other Grand Slam tournament champions to deal with if she is to achieve her goal. Li Na, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka all remain – but after playing the match of her life to beat Williams, suddenly that does not seem quite such an intimidating prospect for Ivanovic.
“I think all the struggles were just for moments like this,” she said. “You work hard and you never know what's going to happen. I just really enjoy competing. Like I said, I'm not afraid going deep against these top players. I feel ready, and I want to challenge everyone out there.”