‘Turned on a dime,’ is a phrase often repeated for tennis matches. Perhaps its most dramatic portrayal came during the quarter-final clash between Serena Williams and Karolina Pliskova at the Australian Open on Wednesday. This time it hinged on the twist of an ankle.
After seizing control of the match by winning the second set, Williams served for it at 5-1, 40-30 up in the decider. Her first serve would have been an ace if it wasn’t called out for a foot fault. In the subsequent rally, she rolled her ankle while trying to change directions quickly and felt the discomfort. She lost the point with a forehand error and served a double fault next to hand Pliskova a break point.
That small let-up for pressure was just enough for the 6’1 Czech to get back into the match. Her flurry of nonchalant winners had unsettled Williams, who usually likes to be the one dictating terms, in the opening set. With Williams still trying to find her balance, Pliskova went on the offensive, playing some “lights out” tennis, as Williams later described it. The Czech survived four match points, three on her serve, and broken the American’s serve at love twice and won six straight games to pull off one of the unlikeliest comebacks in the sport.
“On one hand, I was almost in the locker room, but now I'm standing here as the winner,” Pliskova said after beating the seven-time Australian Open champion 6-4, 4-6, 7-5 in two hours and ten minutes. “She got a little bit shaky in the end so I took my chances and I won.”
Williams, who did not call for a trainer to take a look at the ankle, though refused to blame any injury for how things unraveled.
“My ankle seems to be fine. I usually don't know until the next day, so...I really hate calling the trainer out, to be honest,” the 37-year-old American said. “And at that point, I didn't feel like I needed it or I didn't feel like it would be a big deal. So I just kept going. I think she just played well on my serve after that point. I think she just kind of started playing really, really good. I don't think it had anything to do with my ankle, per se. I just think she was just nailing and hitting shots. Obviously, I made some mistakes, but she played really well after that.”
While Williams was gracious in defeat, the competitor in her would not be happy about the fact that she had faltered almost right at the finish line. The American, who has been back on tour only ten months since giving birth to a daughter, had her sights set on equaling Margaret Court’s record of 24 major singles titles. Her last had come at the 2017 Australian Open, while she was eight weeks pregnant.
But neither childbirth, nor the recovery process after has lowered Williams’ ambitions. After making a comeback at the Grand Slams only at the French Open, the American marched into the finals at Wimbledon and US open. However, she couldn’t quite go home with the titles there either.
“I mean, the big picture for me is always winning,” Williams said after the loss. “I'm not going to sit here and lie about that. From day one, I expect to go out and, quite frankly, to win. 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've been playing for 10 months. I'm not supposed to win.’ I don't have that attitude.”
The 23-time champion seemed to be improving with each major outing. She had looked her fittest since returning to the tour at the Australian Open and had won a physically testing match against World No 1 Simona Halep in the previous round. But unlike Halep, Williams could not overpower the lanky Pliskova, who has a big, bold game herself. The Czech had beaten Williams 6-2, 7-6 in the semi-finals of the 2016 US Open and before their quarter-final clash at the 2018 US Open proclaimed that she “had the game to beat Serena.”
Though Pliskova couldn’t quite overcome Williams in that match in September, she had enough firepower to subdue the American on Wednesday. The ankle-roll is just the kind of fortune players sometimes need in their corner when up against champions. But given that sliver of a chance, Pliskova was quick to seize it.
For Williams though, bad luck seems to come in threes. She had similarly faltered while chasing Steffi Graf’s Open Era record of 22 Grand Slam titles. After winning the second ‘Serena Slam’ of her career — she held all four majors starting with the 2014 US Open — Williams was stuck at a tally of 21 majors for a year. She lost the 2015 US Open semi-final to Italian veteran Roberta Vinci, lost the final of the 2016 Australian Open to Angelique Kerber, and the French Open final to Garbine Muguruza. Kerber and Muguruza had both beaten her to win their maiden Grand Slam titles. Also, it was the first time in her career that Williams had lost two consecutive major finals.
She got over that bump by winning the 2016 Wimbledon title.
“No 22 was close for a long time,” Williams said. “Yeah, we'll see. Right now would be Roland Garros because that's the next one, the next Grand Slam for me.” And if history is an indicator, Williams is due for her 24th in Paris.
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Updated Date: Jan 23, 2019 17:48:30 IST