Serena Williams' window of opportunity closing with loss to Wang Qiang

Serena Williams' window of opportunity closing with loss to Wang Qiang

Still in search of a 24th Grand Slam singles title, the 38-year-old lost in three sets in the third round of the Australian Open to a player she utterly dominated just last summer.

She had lost her only previous meeting against Serena Williams in last year's US Open quarterfinals, 6-1, 6-0 in just 44 minutes, winning only 15 points in a desultory performance where she was in awe of her iconic adversary. She surely approached her third-round rematch with Serena at the Australian Open hoping she could at least impose herself, wanting to believe she could make a match of it, determined to avoid embarrassment.

But this was more than just an entirely different match for Qiang Wang; she was an entirely different player. Performing better than she ever has before in at a major, losing her serve only once across three pulsating sets, striking the ball beautifully from the baseline and keeping Williams frequently off balance, Wang pulled off the upset of the tournament with a 6-4, 6-7 (2), 7-5 win in 2:41 of suspenseful and often spellbinding tennis. After securing her first singles title since the 2017 Australian Open in Auckland at the start of the season, many believed that Williams might be primed to win her first Grand Slam title in Melbourne. But the No. 27 seed upended Serena with remarkable poise under pressure.

"I'm really happy now, still happy," a smiling Wang said after the match. "I always believe I can do this one day. But I don't know which day, but is coming today."

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Early in the first set, both players had their chances. Wang had a break point in the third game but Williams escaped despite connecting with only five of ten first serves. In the following game, Wang was down 0-30 but swept four points in a row for the hold to 2-2. Serving in the sixth game, Wang fended off three break points and held on steadfastly for 3-3. And then, for the third service game in a row, Wang was in a precarious position. But Serena let her off the hook at this juncture. On break point, she made an unforced error off the backhand. It was her 15th unprovoked mistake of the set, which was ten more than Wang at that stage.

Wang put nine of ten first serves in, reaching 4-4 with a clutch hold. Now Williams played an abysmal game, opening with a double fault, following with a pair of anxious errors, falling behind 0-40. Wang broke at love with a forehand winner down the line. The 28-year-old Chinese player served out the set at the cost of only one point, taking it 6-4, outplaying Williams by hugging the baseline and controlling points more than many would have believed possible.

"She's a really aggressive player," Wang said. "You cannot be only passive. You have to stay with her.

"I just tried to be more aggressive, but not aggressive than her, but just try to be my aggressive way."

At 2-2 in the second set, Wang broke Williams at 15 with a clean winner off the forehand, directing that shot down the line with clinical efficiency. Ahead by a set and a break, Wang seemed apprehensive as she trailed 0-30 in the following game, but she eventually held on for 4-2. With Serena serving in the seventh game, Wang had a break point for 5-2 that could have given her the psychological cushion she needed to finish the task in straight sets. But her second serve return was too cautious and Williams won that point with a forehand winner down the line. The 38-year-old American held on for 3-4, but Wang held from break point down as Williams self-destructed at the end of that eighth game.

Now Serena was serving to stay in the match at 3-5. She held comfortably, forcing Wang to head to the changeover and think about what she was on the verge of accomplishing. She was clearly preoccupied with the score, as Wang was broken at 15. Williams played an inspired point to seal that game with a forehand winner on the 24th stroke of a spectacular rally.

It was 5-5. Yet Williams was soon behind 15-40 in the eleventh game before she found something closer to her customary velocity on serve. She saved the first break point with a well-placed sliced serve wide in the deuce court, and then aced Wang out wide in the ad court for deuce. She held on, but Wang retaliated with a love hold for 6-6.

Serving at 2-3 in the tie-break, Wang missed a routine forehand approach long—and thereafter Williams was unstoppable, taking the set 7-2 in that sequence. One set all.

"I was optimistic I would be able to win," Williams said. "I thought, okay, now finish this off. I honestly didn't think I was going to lose that match."

But Wang remarkably refused to drift into a sea of self pity. She dealt admirably with the deep disappointment of her second-set defeat and settled into the third set swiftly. Wang reestablished her authority with her best serving of the contest in that final set. She opened with a hold at 15, and had a break point in the second game. Serena by now was serving much more powerfully, but still not at her maximum level. She aced Wang out wide and held for 1-1. But Wang kept Williams consistently at bay by winning a surprising number of free points on serve all through the third set. And serving first in that last set turned into a considerable advantage for the stylish competitor.

Wang held at 30 for 2-1 before Williams took her serve at 15 in the following game. Wang did not allow Serena a single point in the fifth game, but Williams closed out a deuce game with an ace down the T for 3-3. Wang was victorious in a deuce game that lifted her into a 4-3 lead, and then she had a break point in the eighth game. Serena held on with some stellar serving to make it 4-4, but Wang was unswerving. She held at 15 for 5-4, but Williams reached 5-5 confidently, closing out an easy hold with an ace.

The No. 8 seed from the U.S. had a small opening in the eleventh game as Wang served at 15-30, but the No. 27 seed released a fine first serve into the body that Williams could not handle, followed by a backhand crosscourt winner on the sideline. She got the clutch hold at 30 for 6-5, forcing Williams to serve to stay in the match for the second time.

Three unforced errors from the American gave Wang double match point at 15-40. But then, after managing her emotions so commendably all match long, she understandably became acutely and uncomfortably aware of the scoreline. Wang made a pair of flagrant unforced errors—one off each flank—and the score was locked at deuce. But as tense as she was, Wang did not lose her composure. Williams had an opening on the following point for a forehand winner, but pulled it narrowly wide. Wang was at match point for the third time, and on this one she succeeded, making a solid second serve return and drawing a backhand down the line error from Williams. Victory went deservedly to Wang, 6-4, 6-7 (2), 7-5.

"My coach, Thomas, he always said, I believe 200 percent in you, so you must believe in yourself," said Wang, whose prior coach, Australian Peter McNamara, died of cancer last year.

"I always dream about him. I think he can see what I play today. He will proud of me. I really hope he can be here watch I play.

EXCLUSIVE: A post-upset chat with Wang Qiang's coach, Thomas Drouet

Statistics don’t always tell the whole story of a match, but in this case the numbers reveal plenty. Wang won 69 percent of her first serve points while Williams took 70 percent of hers. That was surprising, and it told us that Williams never served up to full capacity in the match, even in the latter stages when she was hitting it harder.

Yet Wang had a clear edge on second serve points, winning 60 percent to Serena's 50. Wang converted 3 of 12 break points, while Serena was only one for six. Meanwhile, Wang’s aggressive court positioning and willingness to take calculated risks as often as possible from the backcourt were instrumental in her triumph. She made only 20 unforced errors despite going toe to toe with Serena in some ferociously contested exchanges. That controlled aggression won her the match, as did holding her nerve at the end and competing with equanimity all the way through.

"She served well," Williams said. "I didn't return like Serena. Honestly, if we were just honest with ourselves, it's all on my shoulders. I lost that match. So it is what it is.

"Like I said, it's not about the tournament, it's just like I can't play like that. Like, I literally can't do that again. That's unprofessional. It's not cool."

Williams' setback was disconcerting. She clearly thought she should have won the match after escaping in the second set, but she never broke serve in the third. Her ground game gradually improved after the first set, but she never fully found a rhythm and her untidiness was very costly. Williams had won 71 consecutive matches in the first week of the Australian and US Opens combined, but she bowed out here in the third round.

Williams is no longer an unassailable player in the tight corners of the big contests at the premier events. There are more players that can beat her on their best days than was the case four or five years ago. She knows that it is no longer automatic for her to produce her finest tennis when she needs it the most. She could well put herself in contention at Wimbledon and the US Open again this year after reaching the finals of those tournaments for the past two years. Her loss to Wang will not necessarily linger that long. But she suffers through too many difficult days at this stage of her professional life. She realizes that her game can be much more brittle than it was in days gone by.

Williams seems to understand that she remains a formidable player who can beat anyone on any given day, but also recognizes somewhere deep in her psyche, the window of opportunity may not be open that much longer.