Serena Williams slumped to a shocking defeat at the Australian Open after she blew four match points in an attempt to set up a rematch of the controversial US Open final.
Naomi Osaka lay in wait if she could get past Karolina Pliskova in Wednesday’s quarter final, but the 37-year-old American could not keep up her side of the bargain, losing a 5-1 lead to go down 6-4, 4-6, 7-5 in two hours and 10 minutes.
Williams appeared to tweak her left ankle in a rally at 5-1, a game which also saw her foot fault on her first match point. She had three more at 5-4 and was then broken to love as the Rod Laver Arena looked on, stunned.
Karolina Pliskova saved four match points to book her place in the Australian Open semi-finals
Serena Williams had looked in control before a late collapse saw her exit the Melbourne Slam
Pliskova raised her racket above her head as she celebrated one of the best wins of her career
Williams shook hands with Pliskova at the net before making a swift departure from court
‘I think she improved her game in the second set and went for her shots,’ said a delighted Pliskova, the best player never to have won a Grand Slam.
‘I was struggling against the wind. She was playing very well, I played too passive. I was almost in the locker room but now I am standing here as the winner so it’s a very good feeling.
‘It was tough, I didn’t have many chances in the third set. At 5-2 I thought I got a couple of chances and she got a little bit shaky at the end.
‘I will be ready for tomorrow, Naomi has had a great run but I don’t think anyone is more dangerous than Serena.’
When Williams faces the better of the Pliskova twins she is up against someone who can serve bigger than her and, using her long levers, hit the ball with a similar degree of power. The Czech was also armed with the advice of former Wimbledon champion Conchita Martinez, coaching her here and one of the canniest in the business.
Pliskova broke early and could easily have done so again for 4-1 but could only take one of her five break points. Her serve guided her to a set lead, with Williams making sloppy errors at 4-5 when she might have applied more pressure.
American Williams looked frustrated during the first set which she lost 6-4 after 40 minutes
No 7 seed Pliskova served superbly in the opening set and did not face a single break point
It took seven-time champions Williams a while to get into her stride on Rod Laver Arena
Pliskova was pumped up during the opening set and let out a big roar after winning a point
Williams held out her hands and looked up to the sky with a look of exasperation on her face
The Czech missed another set point early in the second but — in what looked to be a lengthy, pivotal fifth game — got the breakthrough when she outrallied her more cumbersome opponent, drawing a netted backhand to break for 3-2.
She then played a poor service game to be broken back for love and change the momentum. Williams began moving into the net more and gaining success by abruptly shifting the direction of the ball in the rallies. She forced another break to take the set, wrong-footing her opponent into a backhand error on the set point.
In the decider the American at first allayed fears about her stamina and tucked in to the Czech’s second serve to cruise towards victory, Pliskova’s subsidence showing why she remains the most talented player yet to win a Grand Slam.
A footfault on match point saw Pliskova regain one of her lost breaks as the nominal No 16 seed slightly tweaked her left ankle during a baseline rally. After that it all fell apart as the Czech clawed her way back, but with Williams still able to run it was startling that she could still not close it out against a sometimes nervy opponent. In the end she committed 37 unforced errors.
After this a 24th singles Grand Slam title looks more elusive than ever, and questions will be asked about whether she will ever equal the record of Margaret Court.
During a change of ends, 37-year-old Williams was seen drying her face on a colourful towel
There was no eye contact as the two players changed ends during their quarter-final match
After a difficult start, Williams improved in the second set, which she eventually won 6-4
Williams delivered five aces during the second set — the same number as her opponent
Williams did not use the turned ankle as an excuse when she spoke later and considered the result.
‘My ankle seems to be fine,’ she said. ‘I think she just played lights out on match point, literally, hitting lines, went crazy on match 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.
‘The big picture for me is always winning. I’m not going to sit here and lie about that. But it hasn’t happened yet, but I feel like it’s going to happen. Just keep taking it one match at a time, just keep soldiering on, I guess.
‘It’s definitely not easy for me. 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 don’t have that attitude.
‘I don’t really take losses well. But, like I said, Karolina literally played lights out starting 5-1, 40-30. Literally I’ve never seen anything like it. If anything, I think that’s a little bit easier to know.’
Tournament favourite Williams wore a green Nike outfit during her match against Pliskova
Pliskova’s left knee was covered by white bandages at Melbourne Park on Wednesday
Williams hit top form in the final set as she stormed into a 5-1 lead… but there was another twist
Pliskova won six games in a row before soaking up the adulation of the Melbourne crowd