MELBOURNE, Australia -- Wearing a huge smile and traditional cloak that made her look like a superhero, Serena Williams stood on the court at Auckland earlier this month holding her daughter, Olympia, with one arm, and her championship trophy in the other. After a three-year title drought, she had finally emerged victorious yet again.
Instantly, she became the heavy favorite to win the Australian Open, a tournament she had won seven times -- most recently in 2017 while pregnant -- and it seemed to many this would be the tournament where she would tie Margaret Court's long-elusive record of 24 Grand Slam titles. The expectations were perhaps the highest they had been since her comeback after maternity leave began.
But it was not to be.
On Friday, the 38-year-old's run in Melbourne came to a crashing halt with a three-set loss against Wang Qiang in the third round in front of a stunned, near-capacity crowd at Rod Laver Arena. After looking uncharacteristically sloppy in the first set, Williams fought back to take the second in a tiebreak and force the decider. The two traded games until Wang broke her for the 6-4, 6-7 (2), 7-5 victory. It marked Williams' first loss in the first week of a hard-court major since 2006.
While Wang clinched her left fist and raised her arm in celebration, Williams walked off the court in a stunned daze. It was a far cry from their last meeting at the US Open quarterfinals this past September, when Williams won 6-1, 6-0 in just 44 minutes, and it seemed as if Friday's result hadn't fully hit her yet.
Wang defeats Serena in three-set thriller
Wang Qiang holds off a late Serena Williams comeback to advance to the fourth round, 6-4, 6-7, 7-5.
"[Entering the third set] I was optimistic I would be able to win," she said after the match. "I thought, 'OK, now finish this off.' I honestly didn't think I was going to lose that match.
"She served well. I didn't return like Serena. Honestly, if we were just honest with ourselves, it's all on my shoulders. I lost that match, so it is what it is."
Williams has been chasing her 24th major title since 2017. Pregnant with her daughter during the run to her victory, she was sidelined from the WTA Tour for the rest of the year and into 2018 as she recovered from a complicated childbirth that nearly killed her. Since her return, she has played in four Grand Slam finals and, as everyone knows all too well by now, she has lost them all. Each loss has sparked more questions about her future and her ability to achieve her spot in the record books. Through it all, and after every defeat, she has been steadfast that her goal to win another title remains the same.
She was emotional throughout the match Friday, yelling her signature "Come on!" after earning clutch points and raising her hands in celebration during the biggest of moments. While there was a sizable crowd on hand to cheer on Wang, some waving Chinese flags, the majority of those in attendance seemed to be supporting Williams and her quest for history. "You got this, Serena!" cheers and "U-S-A, U-S-A" chants were heard throughout. When Williams lost the first set, word quickly spread around Melbourne Park as spectators with grounds passes flocked to watch on large screens.
It seemed virtually every other match was temporarily ignored as all looked on to see if Williams could eek out the victory. There was a collective shock by the final outcome, especially as many had seemingly overlooked the matchup beforehand and instead focused on the potential fourth-round showdown with her longtime friend Caroline Wozniacki, who had previously announced the Australian Open would be her final tournament.
But Wozniacki lost in three sets against Ons Jabeur shortly before Williams' match ended. As she cried with her family on the court as a retirement video played at Melbourne Arena, Wozniacki was overshadowed yet again -- as she had been so many times over the years -- by her superstar friend. She made her way to the locker room and, once Williams' fate had been also sealed, they commiserated one last time. Despite the early exits, it appeared the departure of her closest friend on tour (not including sister Venus, of course) was the most devastating realization of the day for Williams.
"She's had an amazing career," she said later, before pausing and tearing up. "Oh my God, I'm getting emotional. Oh, my God. I'm going to miss her.
"Guys, I can't answer Caroline questions, I'm going to be crying. She's one of my best friends in the world. We have a great life for the rest of our lives together, but I'm going to miss her out on tour."
But while Wozniacki, who is nine years her junior, rides off into the proverbial sunset, Williams says she's not thinking about any such thing just yet. Instead, she said she'll be back to training Saturday in hopes of turning around her recent Slam fortunes. Her hopes for No. 24 will have to wait until at least late May at the French Open, but she is adamant she can reach the milestone.
"I definitely do believe [I can win another Grand Slam title] or I wouldn't be on tour," she said with conviction. "I don't play just to have fun. To lose is really not fun."