Grand slam champion Serena Williams is still on the hunt for an elusive 24th major after suffering a gutting defeat to Chinese No.1 Wang Qiang 6-4 6-7(2) 7-5 in two hours and 41 minutes.
On Chinese New Year’s Eve, Wang cleverly navigated the sheer power from the Williams racquet and created plenty of her own opportunities with some clean hitting, striking 25 winners to only 20 unforced errors.
The shock third round result reversed the outcome of their previous meeting, where Wang only obtained one game en route to a comprehensive 6-1 6-0 US Open quarterfinal loss.
Asked on Rod Laver Arena post-match if she could believe what she just achieved, the rising Chinese star bluntly said “yes”, stoking laughter from the crowd.
Hard work pays 💪
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 24, 2020
“I think my team always believed I can do it. You know, after last time I do really hard work on the court and off the court, so I think it’s really good work and I believed I could do it,” Wang said.
The former world number one, looking to equal Margaret Court’s all-time grand slam record at Melbourne Park, Williams, 38, squandered three early chances to break Wang in the first set and was made to pay.
Hailing from Tianjin, and once calling the late-Australian tennis great Peter McNamara her coach, Wang cleverly redirected the pace off the American’s racquet to capitalise with the lone break of the first set.
The match appeared destined for a boilover as Wang’s clean-hitting ways continued, breaking off a sublime forehand inside-out winner.
But as Williams reminded the Melbourne crowd time and time again over the years, don’t underestimate the power of a champion.
Recovering from break point down, and as the rallies grew longer and more vocal with each blow, the former number one raised her level.
She found a breakthrough as Wang served for the match at 5-4, wresting the break back courtesy of an absurd 22-shot rally.
Never count out SERENA!
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 24, 2020
She pounced on returns and brought the game back to Wang, and with some brutal hitting, the luck of a net cord or two and a crucial decision to challenge a line call in the ensuing tiebreak, sent the match to a deciding set with arms raised in celebration.
Having nearly climbed into the jaws of victory, Wang recovered and held serve consistently, and steadfastly hugged the baseline to dictate rallies.
Trading services holds throughout the final stanza, Wang eventually pounced on Williams’ delivery at the last-possible opportunity, converting her third match point to prevent a ‘super tiebreak’.
The result marks Williams’ earliest exit from the Australian Open since 2006, and extends her slamless run to three years.
Her last victory occurred in Melbourne in 2017, overcoming sister Venus in the final, prior to the birth of her daughter, Alexis Olympia.
Post-match, Williams lamented her volatile hitting, which yielded 56 errors.
“I was optimistic that I would be able to win. I thought now I would finish this off, I honestly thought I wouldn’t lose this match,” the former world number one said.
“Personally, I made a lot of errors and I didn’t hit any of those shots in New York or anywhere in general in a really long time. I made far too many errors to be a professional athlete today.”
Wang will now play Ons Jabeur for a maiden berth in the quarterfinals.
Near-flawless Barty books fourth round berth
World number one Ash Barty has advanced to the second week of the Australian Open for the second straight year, blitzing fast-rising Kazakh Elena Rybakina 6-3 6-2.
In her most comprehensive Melbourne performance to date, the top-ranked Australian stomached a shaky start and a number of long-winded games on serve to make her fourth-round berth in 78 minutes.
“I think today was probably my sharpest match that I played. I felt really comfortable moving around the court,” Barty said.
“Particularly there were tough, long service games. I was able to get out of them and continue the momentum. I think all in all it was a pretty well-rounded performance.”
She next faces either her Wimbledon conqueror, Alison Riske, or her German doubles partner Julia Goerges, a prospect she finds enticing.
“She’s an incredible person. First and foremost, that’s what has drawn me to her. She’s a great tennis player. She’s a lovely person. I enjoy spending time with her,” Barty said.
The in-form Rybakina, a finalist in Shenzhen and champion in Hobart, stamped her claim on the match from the first rally, breaking Barty to love as her walloping groundstrokes proved problematic for the world number one.
Despite being stretched behind the baseline, Barty backed her variety-rich game, finding great effect with her stinging backhand slice to immediately steal the break back.
Trading two more breaks of serve, Barty held her nerve to surge ahead for the first time, to the approval of the partisan crowd.
Rybakina’s game began to fall apart, producing a smattering of unforced errors, including back-to-back mistakes at the net that granted Barty her third consecutive break.
After a rare service hold from the Kazakh, who found the service box less than 50 per cent of the time in set one, Barty displayed her slam-winning mettle to serve it out in 32 minutes.
Securing another early service break in the second set, the local favourite then held her nerve in a nine-minute, six-deuce game to consolidate the advantage.
The final nail in the coffin was dealt in a riveting forehand-to-forehand exchange.
Rybakina, with her tendency to hit the cover off the ball, attempted to wipe Barty off the court with pace.
But the guileful 23-year-old Australian toyed with her opponent and changed direction through a slick chip up the line, forcing her opponent into an error.
Swinging freer, the Australian bullied her 20-year-old opponent around the court, stepping in and closing exchanges with unreturnable shots or accurate volleys.
After fending off six break point opportunities, Barty won four of the last five games, serving out the match to book her place in the round of 16.
Caroline Wozniacki hangs up the racquet
It’s the end of the line for Caroline Wozniacki, who carved out a career as one of the tour’s most formidable defensive walls. But the former Australian Open champion bowed out in fitting style: with a three-set slogfest.
The Danish former world number one, daring to the very end, lost to Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur 7-5, 3-6, 7-5 in just over two hours on Melbourne Arena.
And in her own words, the way the match ended “was just meant to be.”
“It was only fitting my last match would be a three-setter, a grinder and that I would finish my career with a forehand error —those are the things I’ve been working on my whole career,” Wozniacki told the adoring crowd.
— Wide World of Sports (@wwos) January 24, 2020
Wozniacki’s credentials place her among the modern women’s tennis greats.
She reaped the aforementioned Melbourne title in a titanic three-set marathon against Simona Halep in 2018 — who paid tribute to her “consistency” — following two previous grand slam finals in New York.
And with 71 weeks at number one and more than $35 million in accumulated prizemoney, she garnered a reputation for her outstanding longevity.
So what are her fondest memories of life on tour?
“There’s so many things. Obviously the achievements I had on the court the fans the feelings of the support are really amazing and the support I’ve had for my family and especially my dad who’s coached me all these years”, Wozniacki said, wiping away tears.
“I usually don’t cry, so sorry. But those are the special memories that I’ll always cherish and the journey to where we got all together. It’s been a great ride.”
Jabeur created her own history in the process, by becoming the first Arab woman in history to make the fourth round of a grand slam tournament. The unseeded player will next face Wang Qiang for a quarterfinal berth.
Congrats @CaroWozniacki on an amazing career. It was an honour to share the court with you today. Your fighting spirit has always inspired me and I wish you all the best in this next chapter of your life. You'll be missed but I'm sure we will see you around.
— Ons Jabeur (@Ons_Jabeur) January 24, 2020
In other women’s results, last year’s runner-up Petra Kvitova made light work of Russian 25th seed Ekaterina Alexandrova 6-1 6-2.
And Greek sensation Maria Sakkari will make her first fourth round appearance after dismantling American 10th seed Madison Keys 6-4 6-4.
Diego Schwartzman has jokes
Argentinian pocket rocket Diego Schwartzman booked his first-ever fourth round appearance at the Australian Open off the back of his straight sets win over Serbia’s Dusan Lajovic.
Next up, he could face Lajovic’s countryman: former world number one Novak Djokovic.
Not that Schwartzman has the faintest idea who he is.
Following the shellacking, the Argentine, who stands at a relatively diminutive 170 centimetres tall, told the Margaret Court Arena he’s much more familiar with the defending champ’s opponent, Yoshihito Nishioka.
Why? Because the Japanese player shares his height.
“I just know Nishioka because he’s my size, the other guy I don’t really no,” the world number 14 joked.
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 24, 2020
In the only other completed men’s match, Hungarian Marton Fucsovics booked his place in the second week after demolishing American Tommy Paul 6-1 6-1 6-4.
It was his third consecutive win over a next-gen prospect after victories over Canadian Denis Shapovalov and reigning ATP Next Gen Finals champion Jannik Sinner.
Looking ahead — tonight’s must-watch matches
Naomi Osaka  (JPN) v Coco Gauff (USA)
First up on Rod Laver Arena, a rematch of last year’s third round encounter between defending champion Osaka and 15-year-old wunderkind Gauff.
Their only meeting took place last year at Flushing Meadows, where the Japanese world number three won plenty of plaudits for encouraging Gauff to soak in the home crowd adulation in a post-match interview.
John Millman (AUS) v Roger Federer  (SUI)
Two years is a long time in tennis, and Roger Federer will be looking to exact revenge on the Aussie battler, who stunned tennis circles with victory in a sweltering, swampy New York.