MELBOURNE — Down to what sure felt like her last chance, Serena Williams came through with a cross-court forehand winner to close a 24-stroke point, then raised her arms, held that celebratory pose and looked over toward her guest box.
Finally, on her sixth try, after 1½ hours of action, she had managed to convert a break point against 27th-seeded Wang Qiang in the Australian Open’s third round.
Right then, it appeared that the comeback was on, the bid for a 24th Grand Slam singles title could continue. It turned out that Williams only was delaying a surprising defeat.
So tough at the toughest moments for so many years, the 38-year-old American just could not quite do enough to put aside so much so-so serving and all manner of other miscues, instead making her earliest exit at Melbourne Park in 14 years, a 6-4, 6-7 (2), 7-5 loss to Wang on Friday.
Williams was broken in the final game after more than 2½ hours, fittingly ending things with a backhand into the net. That was her 27th unforced error on the backhand side, part of a total of 56 miscues. Wang made only 20.
As Williams trudged through the long walkway that leads to the locker room, Wang was interviewed in Rod Laver Arena, telling the crowd: ‘‘I think my team always believed I can do it.’’
Since grabbing major championship No. 23 at the 2017 Australian Open, while she was pregnant. Williams hasn’t added to her total.
She appeared in four major finals over the past two seasons, losing each one.
And she bowed out much, much sooner this time.
Williams owns seven trophies from the Australian Open and hadn’t lost as early as the third round since all the way back in 2006.
Here is just one measure of how unexpected this result was: The only other time these women faced each other came at the US Open last September — the only Slam quarterfinal appearance of Wang’s career — and Williams needed all of 44 minutes to dominate her way to a 6-1, 6-0 victory. The total points were 50 to 15.
“After last time,” Wang said, “I did really hard work on the court, off the court.”
Wang quickly surpassed those game and point totals Friday, thanks in large part to nearly flawless play in the first set.
She saved all four break points she faced in that set, accumulated 10 winners and made just five unforced errors. Wang picked up the lone break she needed at love with an easy forehand putaway winner that made it 5-4.
Soon enough, Williams was sailing a backhand return long to cede the set. Wang quickly went up in the second, too, and already was ahead by a break at 4-2 when she was a point away from earning another.
But Williams steadied herself there to hold. Then, when Wang served for the victory at 5-4 in the second, Williams seemed to shift the entire complexion of the match.
She was 0 for 5 on break points until then but the sixth time was the charm. On the point of the match, with both players slugging away from the baseline, it was Williams who did what it took to take it.
She was superior in the tiebreaker, too, and on they went to a third set.
“During the second set, [I was] a little bit confused . . . I have to be calm, you know?” Wang said. “A little bit confused inside, but my mind always told me I had to focus on the court, focus on the point and trust myself.’’
Wang will next play Ons Jabeur, who eliminated 2018 champion Caroline Wozniacki, 7-5, 3-6, 7-5.
Wozniacki said late last year that she would retire from the game after the Australian Open in order to spend more time with her family and because she has been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in 2018.
She sat in her court-side chair wiping tears from her eyes before doing an on-court television interview.
“I think it was only fitting that my last match ended with a forehand error,’’ the former No. 1-ranked Wozniacki told the crowd, smiling through the tears.
. . .
Love him or hate him — and there are plenty in each camp — Nick Kyrgios never allows for a dull moment when he’s on a court, whether it’s shot selection, showmanship, momentum swings, barking at his entourage or mocking another player not even involved in the match.
All of the above happened during his ever-eventful 6-2, 6-4, 4-6, 7-5 victory over Gilles Simon in the Australian Open’s second round Thursday night.
That included a moment when Kyrgios — currently on six months’ probation from the ATP for verbally abusing officials — poked fun at the man he might meet in the fourth round, Rafael Nadal. After being warned for taking more than the allotted 25 seconds between serves, Kyrgios mimicked how Nadal fidgets before a point, as if to remind the umpire that there are folks who more egregiously waste time.
When a reporter asked Nadal about Kyrgios’s imitation of the 19-time major champ, the Spaniard replied: “I really don’t care. I’m here to play tennis.’’
About the only boring segment of the proceedings came during the in-stadium interview, when an allusion was made to later rounds and Kyrgios, an Australian seeded 23rd, told the Melbourne Arena crowd, ‘‘I'm not thinking ahead . . . I’m just taking it one match at a time at the moment.’’
After Kyrgios wrapped up, the No. 1-seeded Nadal was still in the early stages of what became a 6-3, 7-6 (7-4), 6-1 win against Federico Delbonis.
Those results were the most intriguing of Day 4 at the year’s first Grand Slam tournament, especially given the distaste Kyrgios and Nadal have for each other in a raucous rivalry that provided one of the highlights of Wimbledon in 2019.
Never too early to begin pondering a meeting with a quarterfinal berth at stake.
For that to materialize, Kyrgios first needs to beat No. 16 Karen Khachanov of Russia on Saturday, when Nadal plays No. 27 Pablo Carreno Busta in an all-Spanish matchup.
A massive overnight storm blew dirt all over town, turning the Yarra River brown and leaving traces of red dust on the blue courts Thursday. The playing surfaces required power washing, which delayed the start of action on some outside courts for more than four hours.
Among the noteworthy winners were US Open runner-up Daniil Medvedev, who took a medical timeout because of a nosebleed in his 7-5, 6-1, 6-3 victory over Spanish qualifier Pedro Martinez, along with two-time French Open finalist Dominic Thiem, No. 7 Alexander Zverev, No. 10 Gael Monfils, and a trio of women who have been ranked No. 1 and own Grand Slam titles: Simona Halep, Angelique Kerber, and Garbine Muguruza.
Early Friday, the top-ranked woman, Ash Barty, was the first to reach the fourth round, beating Elena Rybakina, 6-3, 6-2.
Nothing captivated a crowd quite like Kyrgios did against Simon, a 35-year-old from France who is ranked 61st.
Not all for good reasons, though.
Kyrgios delighted the fans with his between-the-legs shots and booming serves — to the tune of 28 aces, including one at 136 m.p.h. to end the match.
He also probably made them nervous with the way he seemed to give away the third set after twice being a point from serving for the win, holding break chances while already leading, 4-2. Kyrgios dropped the last four games, no longer showing the patience in baseline exchanges that helped build a lead in the first place.
There also were the consecutive double-faults that allowed Simon to get to 4-all with his first break of the match.
That was part of a stretch in which Kyrgios veered off course for quite a while. The talented 24-year-old went from a total of 10 unforced errors over the first couple of sets to 30 over the next two.
During the changeover before the fourth set, Kyrgios expressed his displeasure with the sort of support he was getting from his group in the audience — which included former No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt — sarcastically huffing: ‘‘So creative. So creative. So creative. Out of all the things you could say: ‘Stay tough.’ Thanks, man. Thanks. ‘Stay tough.’ That’s what I get. Every break point: ‘Stay tough.’ Wow. Wow. Wow.’’
Kyrgios later described himself with a vulgar term for that reaction and said he apologized to his entourage in the locker room.
“They don’t deserve that. They do a lot of things for me, on and off the court,” he said. “No, it’s not acceptable from me. Nothing to do with them.’’
Eventually, he got himself headed back in the right direction, earning break points at 5-all in the fourth. Kyrgios got that key break with a forehand winner to lead, 6-5.
He served it out with a trio of aces, adding to his pledge of 200 Australian dollars per ace this month — there have been 111 in singles thus far, so 22,200 Australian dollars’ worth — to help relief efforts for the wildfires burning around his country.
Then he turned toward the stands behind the baseline and let out a roar.
“Could have gone to a dark place, and I brought it back. I somehow scraped the win,” Kyrgios said later. “Maturity? I don’t know. I'm just happy to get the win.’’