‘I’m Better Than That,’ Serena Said. But Her Competition Is Better, Too.

MELBOURNE, Australia — This time, it seemed reasonable to think that Serena Williams had put herself in better position to change her Grand Slam fortunes.

The greatest player of her era, perhaps of any era, had trained with enthusiasm in the preseason and warmed up for the Australian Open by winning her first tour title in nearly three years. She had looked healthy and convincing in her opening two rounds in Melbourne.

Though she had not won a Grand Slam title since 2017, she was the oddsmakers’ consensus favorite to win the singles championship and claim her 24th Grand Slam victory, even at age 38.

Yet her quest to secure that record-tying singles title remains just that: a quest, and her three-year, circuitous route back to the highest peaks of tennis — a difficult pregnancy; a confrontation with a chair umpire at the United States Open that set off debates about women, power and race; the surging tide of younger contenders — has arrived at a crossroads.

On Friday, she met a surprising obstacle in Wang Qiang, a 28-year-old Chinese competitor whom she easily had beaten at the U.S. Open. For Williams, all the anticipation only led to more disappointment. There were shouts of frustration and anguished looks from awkward positions as she missed her targets, banged serves into the middle of the net and fell short even after storming back to force a third set.

It was the sort of major momentum shift that Williams typically rides to victory. Instead, Wang held surprisingly firm and Williams uncharacteristically faltered, losing this third-round duel, 6-4, 6-7 (2), 7-5.

“Honestly, if we were just honest with ourselves, it’s all on my shoulders,” Williams said, acknowledging that this time there was no one else to blame. “I lost that match.”

And so now the inevitable questions come about her next chapter, at a time when a number of tennis’ titans are aging and quitting. Is the unimaginable day of a Serena-less world of sports upon us or if this is yet another setback on the path to a momentous comeback befitting her aura, something on the order of Tiger Woods’s victory at the Masters last year.

“You can never count her out because she’s Serena, but it’s increasingly getting more difficult,” said Chris Evert, the ESPN commentator and 18-time Grand Slam singles champion, in an interview late on Friday night.

“The women are getting better and getting more and more confident against her as time goes on,” Evert added. “They are almost matching her power, and that is only making it harder.”

It was easy, perhaps too easy, to view Friday as a changing of the guard, with former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki heading into retirement after her third-round defeat to Ons Jabeur, and with the American 15-year-old Coco Gauff recording her most significant victory yet by upsetting No. 3 seed Naomi Osaka, the defending champion.

“Serena and players like Caroline have carried the torch for so long now, and in a sense, it’s starting to be handed over to the younger generation,” Evert said.

It remains unclear just how far Gauff is prepared to carry it at this early stage. She has poise far beyond her years, undeniable talent and rare charisma, which has already made her a crowd favorite in London, New York and Melbourne in her brief pro career. She seems to be improving not just week to week but match to match.

And yet her 6-3, 6-4 triumph was as much about Osaka’s shortcomings, as it was about Gauff’s talent.

“I don’t really have the champion mentality yet, which is like someone that can deal with not playing 100 percent,” Osaka conceded in a confessional news conference. “I always have wanted to be like that, but I guess I still have a long way to go.”

Williams is in a different position, agonizingly close to familiar territory.

When Williams left the tour to give birth to her daughter, Olympia, she was still close to the peak of her powers: she won her 23rd major singles title at the 2017 Australian Open without dropping a set while two months pregnant.

Since her return to competition in February 2018, she has reached four Grand Slam singles finals at an age when nearly all of tennis’s great champions have already retired.

But she has lost all of those finals, often playing well short of her best against inspired opposition. She has been beaten soundly by establishment figures: Angelique Kerber at Wimbledon in 2018 and Simona Halep at Wimbledon in 2019. She has lost convincingly to new stars who grew up watching her win on television: Osaka at the U.S. Open in 2018 and 19-year-old Bianca Andreescu at the same tournament in 2019.

Friday’s defeat belonged in a different category, considering that Williams had overwhelmed the 27th-seeded Wang by the no-nonsense score of 6-1, 6-0 in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open just a few months ago. Wang, a free swinger with power and speed who plays mainly from the baseline, bore no resemblance to the player who looked trapped in the spotlight at Arthur Ashe Stadium in September.

The power gap has indeed closed with Williams’s opponents, although her first serve does remain a singular weapon, but only when she places it properly. Against Wang, Williams landed just 56 percent of her first serves.

Still, the intimidation factor has also diminished and the bonus points that go along with it. Unlike last summer, Williams converted just one of six break points against Wang Friday.

You could even see it earlier this month in Auckland, New Zealand, where Williams won her first tour title since her comeback and struggled to overwhelm lower-ranked players like Christina McHale from the baseline.

The opposition is emboldened by her vulnerability, but that does not mean she is done threatening Margaret Court’s record of 24.

Her chances of winning the French Open have historically been slim. It is played on relatively slow and high-bouncing red clay that has long been her weakest surface and negates some of her serving edge. She last won in Paris in 2015.

But if she can remain healthy, play a consistent schedule of events and arrive at Wimbledon in good form, she should certainly still be a serious contender at the All England Club, where she has won seven singles titles on the grass.

Evert said she believes Williams needs to work on covering as much ground on the court as she did five years ago. “Emotionally and mentally, she’s still a great champion,” Evert said. She added: “I think it ‘s more about working hard to get in better shape, which might help relieve some of the stress and make things easier for her.”

It certainly looked difficult against Wang, as Williams made 56 unforced errors, compared with 20 for her opponent, and did very little to disguise her dismay.

“It’s not even about the Slams,” she said of the pressure of chasing No. 24. “It’s just about me playing good tennis, and I didn’t do that today. That is more disappointing. So it’s not even about the win. It’s just more about, I’m better than that.”

She made similar comments after losing to Andreescu last year. It has happened too frequently to be a coincidence, but Williams has put herself in contention too frequently for that to be a coincidence, either.

She insists that falling short stings just as much now as it always has.

“I just have to pretend like I don’t want to punch the wall,” she said. “But in reality, I do.”