In a shock upset at the hands of Wang Qiang on Friday, Serena Williams is out of the Australian Open, failing to reach the last 16 for the first time in 14 years in Melbourne and falling short, once again, on her quest to equal Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles.
We were both kind of bummed about our matches but, you know, it's not the end of the world. Guys, I can't answer Caroline [Wozniacki] questions, I'm going to be crying... She's one of my best friends in the world. We have a great life for the rest of our lives together, but I'm going to miss her out on tour. Serena Williams
Wang avenged her defeat to Williams in the quarter-finals at the US Open where the Chinese was demolished 6-1 6-0 in just 44 minutes, but this time the story was very different.
As the 38-year-old American’s campaign came to a close, so too did that of her close friend, Caroline Wozniacki, who lost in 3 sets to Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur in her last professional match and she now retires from the WTA Tour.
Williams told reporters that Wozniacki had visited her in the locker room after both of their surprise defeats.
“We were both kind of bummed about our matches,” Williams said. “But, you know, it’s not the end of the world.
“Things go on. Well, I can play better. I don’t know if she’s going to play any better any more.”
When Williams was asked about Wozniacki’s legacy, the 23-time Grand Slam winner was overcome with emotion as she contemplated life on the tour without her close confidante.
“I don’t know. It’s so fresh. We’ll see. It’s really fresh right now for her retirement,” Williams said. “Yeah, she’s had an amazing career.
“Oh, my God, I’m getting emotional. Oh, my God. I’m going to miss her.
“Guys, I can’t answer Caroline questions, I’m going to be crying.
“She’s one of my best friends in the world. We have a great life for the rest of our lives together, but I’m going to miss her out on tour.”
Wozniacki typically fought tooth and nail until the very end against Jabeur and later described the 7-5 3-6 7-5 scoreline as an appropriate end to her tennis career.
“Only fitting that my last match was a three-setter, a grinder, and I finished my career with a forehand error,” the 2018 Australian Open champion laughed through tears.
“Those are the things I’ve been working on my whole career.”
Wang’s reversal of fortunes was unthinkable, beating the mighty Williams after coming into the 3rd round match as the universal underdog.
It was supposed to be an easy win for the former World No 1 and 23 Grand Slam title holder, but Wang proved just how far she has come since the pair last met.
“I think my team always believed that I can do it. After last time I did really hard work on and off the court so I think it’s really good work,” Wang said in a post-match interview.
“During the second set I was a little bit confused because I lost, but I had to be calm…focus on every point and trust myself.”
Despite being ruled out by most observers, Wang showed early on that she meant business, moving Williams around the court and withstanding the champion’s devastating returns.
After fending off multiple attacks on her own serve, Wang claimed the first break, allowing her to take the first set and grabbing the attention of her doubters.
Wang put her victory down to the lessons she learnt from the hiding she suffered to Williams at Flushing Meadows last year.
She knew she had to build her strength if she was to topple the likes of a heavy-hitting Williams in future.
“In off-season we do, like, three hours tennis in a row,” Wang said. “I think it’s really helped me to be stronger on the court, mentally tough on the court.”
After snatching the opening set, the huge upset inched closer to reality when Wang broke in the 5th game of the second but Williams crunched a 143km/h forehand to fend off break point on her way to a 3-4 hold.
Time, though, was running out, and the No 8 seed sensed the pressure as her opponent stepped up to serve for the match at 5-4.
With the win tantalising close, however, Serena-the-champion emerged, breaking Wang on just her 2nd break point of the set after winning a 24-shot rally with a forehand winner crosscourt and raising both arms in triumph as she levelled at 5-all.
Her biggest show of emotion for the set came when she flicked a forehand winner past an outstretched Wang for 5-2 in the tiebreak, and the quest for an 8th Australian Open title was back on track when she served out the tiebreak 2 points later.
Eyeing an historic victory, Wang had entered the 2nd set tiebreak with everything to gain but was unable to close, and the match went to a deciding third set.
“I was optimistic I would be able to win,” Williams said of clinching the 2nd set. “I thought, OK, now finish this off.
“I honestly didn’t think I was going to lose that match.”
Despite opportunities to edge ahead, Wang and Williams went game for game, and it seemed they were headed for another tiebreak.
During the final game, however, back-to-back errors from the No 8’s seeds racket drew her within 2 points of defeat, and when a backhand sailed long it handed Wang two match points.
The Chinese No 1 struck, breaking the American’s powerful serve to claim the biggest upset of the tournament so far, and probably the most rewarding scalp of the Wang’s career.
“I mean, personally I made a lot of errors,” Williams conceded. “I didn’t hit any of those shots in New York or in general in a really long time. So that’s good news.
“I just made far too many errors to be a professional athlete today.”
Only four months ago, Wang scored a career-best win over Roland Garros champion Ashleigh Barty at Flushing Meadows before Williams trounced her in the last 8.
“Yes I think my team always believe I can do it,” said Wang, who lost her Australian coach Peter McNamara to cancer last July.
“I always dream about him [McNamara]. I think he can see what I play today.
“He will [be] proud of me. I really hope he can be here watch I play. Yes, I miss him.”
As for Williams, she is left reflecting on being unable to turn her fortunes around after snagging the momentum in the second set.
“She served well. I didn’t return like Serena,” she said. “If we were just honest with ourselves, it’s all on my shoulders.
“I lost that match. So it is what it is … 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.”
Time is against Williams if she is to achieve the last remaining milestone driving her to equal Court’s record of 24 singles majors.
She turns 39 this year and at least 12 majors will now pass without her name etched on the trophy.
In her 8 slams since returning from the birth of her daughter, Olympia, this is her equal earliest exit.
“I’m definitely going to be training tomorrow,” Williams said. “That’s first and foremost, to make sure I don’t do this again.”
Her bid for a record-equalling 24th major would now turn to Roland Garros. With 3 majors still to play for in 2020, Williams was non-committal when pressed on whether she would be back to Melbourne Park in 2021.
“Yeah, you know, I feel like I’m on the way up, so we’ll see,” she said. “I don’t know. I’m not even thinking about anything, about not being here.”
A hoodoo had been lifted when Williams won her first title in Auckland since returning to the tour 2 years ago but after her earliest departure in 14 years, her quest must now shift to the red clay of Roland Garros.
It is the site of 3 of her majors, but by far her least successful of the 4 Grand Slams.
Make no mistake, that competitive fire still burns, and this defeat hurts as deeply as any ever did.
“I am just a better actress, as I always say now,” Williams said. “I’m no happier than I was 10 years ago, but I just have to pretend like I don’t want to punch the wall, but in reality I do.”
After 15 years on tour, Serena’s buddy, Wozniacki, has bowed out and with the final point over, the tears began to flow, but the Dane managed to embrace the occasion with a sense of humour.
“I brought the tissues just in case,” quipped the former World No 1 during her on court interview.
Heading back to the locker room, Wozniacki was ‘feeling the love’ from fellow players coming up to congratulate her, with excitement, sadness all blended in with ‘flashbacks to since I was a kid to this moment’.
Sitting in her final press conference, the 29-year-old reflected on her last duel: “I’m always that person that even when I’m down a lot, I’ve always believed that I can come back and win.
“I don’t think it mattered for me so much what the score was.
“I think throughout the match, there was a couple of times where I was like, ‘Shoot, this could be my last one. I don’t want it to be the last one. I want to be out there fighting’.
“I fought like my life depended on it. It is just what it is,” added the great Dane.
“I think the result today doesn’t matter to me as much as the way that I fought, that I gave it everything… that’s what I’m known for.”
Wozniacki had fought back from 2 breaks down in both sets in her second-round encounter, and battled back from the brink again on Melbourne Arena.
World No 78 Jabeur raced 3-0 ahead in the decider, but in archetypal fashion, Wozniacki found a way to push for the finish line.
Jabeur just about prevailed and it was left for Wozniacki to take the mic on court to celebrate a trophy-laden career of 30 titles, including her maiden major at the Australian Open 2 years ago.
“Obviously the achievements I had on the court were amazing. The fans, the feelings you guys give us when we play out here, the support feels really amazing,” continued Wozniacki, before a lap of appreciation with ‘Sweet Caroline’ booming from the speakers.
“The support I’ve had from my family, especially my dad [Piotr] who has coached me since I was seven. I usually don’t cry,” Wozniacki joked, wiping away the tears.
“Those are the special memories I will always cherish, the journey together, it’s been really amazing, a great ride. I really am happy, I’m ready for the next chapter, I’m really excited for what’s to come. You’ll see me around off the court.”
The Dane is renowned as one of the toughest competitors on court, for her dogged determination and astonishing consistency.
“I don’t have much experience here, so I was a little bit nervous at the end. She always plays unbelievable, she runs really good,” said Jabeur, after making a maiden Grand Slam 4th round, before praising the retiring Wozniacki.
“So I’m really happy that I played you, Caro, you are such an inspiration for me and many players. I’ve been lucky enough to be on tour with you.”
With friends and family joining Wozniacki on court, it was time for her dad Piotr to lift his daughter in the air to savour an astonishing career.