Serena Williams’ hunt for a 24th grand slam title goes on.
After being defeated by Naomi Osaka in the US Open final when Williams called chair umpire Carlos Ramos a “thief” and accused him of sexism, the 23-time grand slam winner departed the Australian Open at the quarterfinal stage in dramatic circumstances.
There was no umpire controversy this time, rather a left ankle injury to Williams that surely contributed to squandering a massive 5-1 advantage and four match points to Karolina Pliskova — even if the 37-year-old played down the problem and its effect on the outcome.
“I don’t think it had anything to do with my ankle per se,” said Williams. “I just think she was just nailing and hitting shots. Obviously I made some mistakes but she played really well after that.”
The Czech, who also beat Williams at the 2016 US Open, prevailed 6-4 4-6 7-5 in a shade past two hours in Melbourne.
Williams will thus have to wait for a record-tying 24th grand slam title and rematch with Osaka, who earlier swept past WTA Finals champion Elina Svitolina 6-4 6-1 in much more straightforward fashion.
Former world No. 1 Pliskova might believe destiny is on her side following the proceedings at Rod Laver Arena.
If she does land a maiden major, she would follow in the footsteps of the likes of Caroline Wozniacki, Angelique Kerber and Li Na here. They all lifted the trophy Down Under having saved match points along the way.
In men’s action, France’s Lucas Pouille upset Milos Raonic 7-6 (7-4) 6-3 6-7 (2-7) 6-4 to reach his first grand slam semifinal. He will face either six-time champion Novak Djokovic or 2014 US Open finalist Kei Nishikori, who play in the night session.
Not for the first time, Williams, 37, rallied from a set and break deficit at a grand slam to put herself in a winning, seemingly impregnable position.
But serving at 5-1, 40-30, Williams turned her left ankle on her first match point while changing direction.
She double faulted on the next point, part of a stretch where she didn’t claim another point on serve in the set, losing 10 in a row.
Williams, though, never called for the trainer.
“I like to just tough it out,” said Williams.
She, however, had three more match points at 5-4. On one, the trajectory of a Pliskova second serve initially threatened a double fault but looped in to the world No. 8’s relief.
When Williams struck a forehand into the net on her foe’s third match point, a jubilant and probably disbelieving Pliskova officially advanced.
Comebacks like the one she engineered against Williams are unheard of.
“I think it’s … the best comeback, so far, in my life,” Pliskova said.
Williams had looked sharp throughout this fortnight, too, breezing through three rounds prior to beating current world No. 1 Simona Halep in a high-quality, three-set tussle Monday.
Losing in the last eight at a major is exceedingly rare for her — she had been 14-1 at this stage in her last 15 grand slam appearances.
Rare quarterfinal loss
But her last loss came here in Melbourne in 2013, ousted that day as injuries also played a part against Sloane Stephens.
“Obviously when you go over your ankle, it’s not the best thing that can happen during a match,” Pliskova’s coach, former Wimbledon champion Conchita Martinez, told CNN.
“It was unfortunate for Serena and I think she was actually thinking of her foot. I saw she had tape on both her ankles so, yeah, but this is tennis,” added the Spaniard, referring to the tape Williams opted for before the outing.
“Karolina also woke up with a sore knee today, something new, so you gotta go through the pain and stay in the match … and yeah. It can happen to everybody.”
Overall it was Williams’ earliest departure at a grand slam — not including a withdrawal — since a third-round showing at Wimbledon in 2014.
Returning to action last year after giving birth to daughter Alexis Olympia in September 2017, Williams impressively made finals at Wimbledon and the US Open, falling to Angelique Kerber and Osaka, respectively.
“From day one I expect to go out and quite frankly, to win,” said Williams. “That hasn’t happened. But I do like my attitude. I like that I don’t want to go out here and say, ‘I expect to lose’ because I had a year off.
“I don’t have that attitude.”
Her motivation is “absolutely” still there, she added.
When Williams and Osaka met in the final in New York in September, it turned out to be one of the most memorable grand slam finals in recent history.
And not for the forehands and backhands on display, of course.
The controversy overshadowed Osaka’s terrific play, but the Japanese star has admirably kept it going.
The 21-year-old became the first female player since Kim Clijsters in 2006 to reach a grand slam semifinal after winning her maiden major at the previous grand slam.
Pliskova to kick on?
Is Pliskova on course for a maiden major herself?
The 26-year-old is ever dangerous and some might say has underachieved at grand slams given her massive game. Like Williams, her sister plays tennis, in this case twin sister Krystyna.
Perennially one of the biggest servers in tennis, Pliskova found all her serving spots in the early going.
Williams didn’t manufacture a break point until the second set, by which time Pliskova grabbed a set lead.
That didn’t bode well for Williams, since she was 2-6 on her comeback when losing the first set.
Close to pulling off the upset at 3-2 in the second — yes an upset, no matter what the current rankings suggest — Pliskova blinked and was broken to love for 3-3.
“Al little chance and Serena is gonna take it,” said Martinez. “Karolina didn’t serve as good that game, then she got a bit more passive so things got complicated, very, very complicated. But what we saw after the 5-1 is unbelievable.”
Williams had the momentum and pounced in the final game of the set, breaking after Pliskova led 40-15. In that game, Pliskova failed to take any of her five game points.
A break in the fourth game of the third seemingly set Williams on her way prior to the incredible proceedings on that first match point.
“I saw a chance and I just took it,” said Pliskova.
A simple statement in a topsy-turvy quarterfinal.