Serena Williams in action during her fourth-round loss to Ana Ivanovic.
© Scott Barbour/Getty Images
By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com
MELBOURNE, Australia – Given that she owns five Australian Open titles, Serena Williams cannot be considered snake bitten Down Under. But she’s certainly had a rough time of it in her last three appearances.
On Sunday in the fourth round, Williams was contending with a back injury that nearly forced her to pull out of the tournament two days earlier. She would not use the injury as an excuse for her 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 loss to Ana Ivanovic, but clearly she was nowhere near her best. Williams was lacking power, precision and confidence, and consequently her 25-match winning streak was gone.
“The back was a problem for her to move correctly,” said Williams’ coach Patrick Mouratoglou. “She was never coming forward to hit the shot; she was always waiting for the ball. She was always on the back foot, and she was in a bad position, so when you are in a bad position, you miss everywhere. She was soft today, and Ana was particularly aggressive. She came in every time and did it very well.”
Former No. 1 Ivanovic was not the type of foe that Williams wanted to confront on the day because the Serb has been on a roll as of late, winning Auckland over Serena’s sister Venus and taking down Aussie favorite daughter and former US Open champion Samantha Stosur in the third round.
Ivanovic arguably played the best match she has contested at a major since she won 2008 Roland Garros. She continued to go for her shots, served consistently well and did not choke.
“I obviously wasn't hitting the way I normally would hit and wasn't moving the way I normally would move and was making a lot of errors that I normally would not make and that I haven't made in a couple of years,” Serena said. “I know that I can play 10 times better. At the end of the day, it's not the end of the world, and I keep stressing that I feel like Ana played really well. I think she played a really good match. I don't want to sit here and make an excuse when she played such a great match.”
Serena sustained her injury in practice ahead of her third-round win over Daniela Hantuchova. Thirty minutes before that match began, she almost pulled out but was able to hit a couple of balls in practice and gave it go. Somehow she pulled off the win. But Ivanovic played far better than Hantuchova did, and Serena was too restricted to be able to respond with her ‘A’ game.
“I don't know how she won against Hantuchova because it was 10 times worse than today,” Mouratoglou said. “Today was a combination of not being able to move like she usually moves, and she was in bad positions, but also the fact that Ana played a great match. When you are not able to do what you usually do and [Ivanovic] is succeeding every time she hits a shot, the pressure is bigger on you cause you don't see any solutions. The pressure got stronger and stronger.”
Serena stressed that she did not give the 14th-seeded Ivanovic the match and credited her for playing “unbelievable” and going for her shots. The 32-year-old Williams also felt good that she gave it her all despite the loss.
Some analysts gave No. 1 Williams a chance to win the calendar-year Grand Slam this season, and clearly she will be unable to do that now. She says that she gave up on that hope a long time ago but does know that she will be able to repeat her 2002-03 feat, when she won four majors at 2002 Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open and the 2003 Australian Open.
“Maybe I can win four in a row, but it seems like in the one year it's kind of difficult for me for whatever reason,” she said.
While 17-time Grand Slam champion Williams has the tools to pull it off, so many things have to break right in order for any great player to do so, especially good health.
She missed the 2011 tournament, as she was off the tour with a foot injury. In 2012 in Australia, she injured her ankle and was unable to get around the court in a loss to Ekaterina Makarova. Last year, she injured her ankle in the first round and eventually went down to Sloane Stephens in the semis. This year, her back seized up at the wrong time.
Williams says she will try to play the United States' first-round Fed Cup tie in Cleveland against defending champion Italy, Feb. 8-9. She is headed home on Monday and hopes to be back on the practice court next week. Then she will begin to grind again, as she has nearly a full season ahead.
“I always feel like I can do better and how I can improve,” she said. "You know, as I fell at Wimbledon [where Sabine Lisicki upset her], I was able to get myself back up. Sometimes it's good when I lose because it takes my head out of the clouds. Not that they are ever there, so to speak. I just work as if I'm ranked 1,000 in the world.”
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