Injury and Ivanovic get the better of Williams By Simon Briggs in Melbourne Funny how every season starts with chat about Serena Williams doing the calendar grand slam, only for her supporters to beat a chastened retreat when her body breaks down halfway through the Australian Open. Is it something to do with her winter training schedule (or lack of it)? Could it be the hostility of the local conditions?
As Bill Bryson once wrote of Australia: "If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles." Or beaten by Ana Ivanovic in three tight sets. A fourth-round exit here might not count as "the end of the world", as Williams pointed out on Sunday, but this was the third year in a row when she had staggered out of the tournament with an injury. Her ankles were the problem in both 2012 and 2013, and this time it was a locked back, which caused fatal damage to her footwork. On a day of swirling wind, she was constantly reaching for the ball on her backhand side, and regularly walloping it into the net.
"She hurt her back in training [on Thursday]," Patrick Mouratoglou, Williams's coach, said. "Thirty minutes before the match against [Daniela] Hantuchova [on Friday], she was about to pull out. Then she said: 'I'm going to try to hit one ball'. She hit two balls and said 'OK, I'm going to try'. So that one was a miracle. "Today she was never coming forward to hit shots. She was always on the back foot, in a bad position. When you're in a bad position you cannot hit 100 per cent because then you will miss everywhere. So she was soft today.
And Ana was aggressive. She could come in every time and she did it really well." The Australian Open used to be Williams's banker, a tournament she has won five times. Yet since her comeback from a life-threatening pulmonary embolism in 2011, her performances here have diminished.
While Williams has never turned in a more dominant season than she did last year (win-loss record: 78-4), it almost seems as if this event now comes too early for her, before she has established her best rhythm and reacquainted her body with the stresses and strains of life on tour. Still, even when Williams is not moving fluently, her opponents have to stay in the match both physically and psychologically if they want to beat her - a lesson that the unfortunate Hantuchova might reflect on after her 6-3, 6-3 defeat. Williams was "10 times worse" before that match, according to Mouratoglou.
There were moments yesterday when Ivanovic showed similar mental frailty. She shanked a series of groundstrokes for no good reason, except that the first set was drawing to a climax. But for the second half of the match, she committed herself to thumping her forehand into the corners and scrambling forward like a commando.
Had Williams been running at full power, this would have been a kamikaze tactic, but the ball kept floating back with nothing on it, and Ivanovic was able to close out her first victory over Williams (at the fifth attempt): 4-6, 6-3, 6-3. "I had to break a spell", Ivanovic said after the match, "and what better place to do it than here against such a champion? I just kept swinging. Even when I made errors I really believed in it. So to have that victory, it's amazing."