An ankle injury in the third set likely had more to do with Williams’s defeat, in which she blew a 5-1 lead in that final frame to fall, 6-4, 4-6, 7-5. However, that injury came immediately after Williams was called for a foot fault while serving on a match point, raising anew questions about whether she is getting the deference that some think should be accorded a player of her stature.
As it was, the 37-year-old Williams will have to wait at least until the French Open in late May to try again to tie Margaret Court’s mark of 24 Grand Slam singles titles, a record for women and men. The former world No. 1, seeded 16th in Australia after an up-and-down 2018 season in which she made her way back from an extremely difficult childbirth, failed to convert four match points while falling to the seventh-seeded Pliskova.
“I literally did everything I could on those match points,” Williams said after the match. “I can’t say that I choked on those match points. She literally played her best tennis ever on those shots.”
“I was almost in the locker room,” Pliskova told the crowd at Melbourne’s Rod Laver Arena, “but now I’m standing here as the winner.”
The loss negated a much-anticipated semifinals showdown with Osaka, the fourth seed in Melbourne who defeated No. 6 Elina Svitolina, 6-4, 6-1, earlier Wednesday. Osaka’s breakthrough triumph at the U.S. Open, representing the first Grand Slam singles title won by a player of either Japanese or Haitian descent, was overshadowed to a large degree by the controversy over Williams’s berating of the chair umpire, who assessed her a violation for coaching, then a point penalty for smashing a racket and a game penalty for verbal abuse.
The outbursts by Williams during that match reminded many of her tirade during the 2009 U.S. Open, one that began when she was called for a foot fault. “I swear to God, I’m … going to take this ball and shove it down your … throat,” she yelled then at a lineswoman in an expletive-laced rant during a semifinal loss to Kim Clijsters for which Williams later apologized.
On Wednesday there were no such displays, but it was apparent that the sequence of the foot fault — a relatively rare infraction called for the first time on either player in the match — followed by the ankle injury marked a turning point.
“She got a little bit shaky in the end,” Pliskova said. “So I took my chances. And I won.”
Pliskova earned praise for showing the determination to battle back, but to some onlookers, the bigger story was the way things unraveled for her opponent. “You could not imagine or script how the last two majors have ended for Serena! How can the 1st foot fault of the match be called on 27th game on 1st match point?” tweeted tennis analyst and former player Pam Shriver.
For her part, Williams downplayed the effects of her injury and praised Pliskova’s performance, particularly after her injury. “I think she just played well on my serve after that point. I think she just kind of started playing really, really good,” Williams said.
“I don’t think it had anything to do with my ankle, per se,” she added. “I just think she was just nailing and hitting shots.”
While Osaka and Pliskova are set to square off in one of the Australian Open semifinals, the other will feature an American no one expected to get this far, unseeded 25-year-old Danielle Collins. The former two-time NCAA singles champion for the University of Virginia will face two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, the eighth seed, after previously never making it out of the first round of a Grand Slam event.
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