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Serena Williams stunned by Wang Qiang at Australian Open

Serena Williams of the U.S. makes a forehand return to China's Wang Qiang in their third-round match at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, on Jan. 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
China's Wang Qiang makes a forehand return to Serena Williams of the U.S. in their third-round match at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, on Jan. 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
Serena Williams of the U.S. reacts as she plays China's Wang Qiang in their third-round singles match at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, on Jan. 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
China's Wang Qiang celebrates after defeating Serena Williams of the U.S. in their third-round singles match at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, on Jan. 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) -- Down to what sure felt like her last chance, Serena Williams came through with a cross-court forehand winner to close a 24-stroke point, then raised her arms, held that celebratory pose and looked over toward her guest box.

    Finally, on her sixth try, after 1 1/2 hours of action, she had managed to convert a break point against 27th-seeded Wang Qiang in the Australian Open's third round.

    Right then, it appeared that the comeback was on, the bid for a 24th Grand Slam singles title could continue. It turned out that Williams only was delaying a surprising defeat.

    So tough at the toughest moments for so many years, the 38-year-old American just could not quite do enough to put aside so much so-so serving and all manner of other miscues, instead making her earliest exit at Melbourne Park in 14 years, a 6-4, 6-7 (2), 7-5 loss to Wang on Friday.

    Williams was broken in the final game after more than 2 1/2 hours, fittingly ending things with a backhand into the net. That was her 27th unforced error on the backhand side, part of a total of 56 miscues. Wang made only 20.

    As Williams trudged through the long walkway that leads to the locker room, Wang was interviewed in Rod Laver Arena, telling the crowd: "I think my team always believed I can do it."

    Since grabbing major championship No. 23 at the 2017 Australian Open, while she was pregnant, Williams hasn't added to her total.

    She appeared in four major finals over the past two seasons, losing each one.

    And she bowed out much, much sooner this time.

    Williams owns seven trophies from the Australian Open and hadn't lost as early as the third round since all the way back in 2006.

    Here is just one measure of how unexpected this result was: The only other time these two women faced each other came at the U.S. Open last September -- the only Slam quarterfinal appearance of Wang's career -- and Williams needed all of 44 minutes to dominate her way to a 6-1, 6-0 victory. The total points were 50 to 15.

    "After last time," Wang said, "I did really hard work on the court, off the court."

    Wang quickly surpassed those game and point totals Friday, thanks in large part to nearly flawless play in the first set.

    She saved all four break points she faced in that set, accumulated 10 winners and made just five unforced errors. Wang picked up the lone break she needed at love with an easy forehand putaway winner that made it 5-4.

    Soon enough, Williams was sailing a backhand return long to cede the set. Wang quickly went up in the second, too, and already was ahead by a break at 4-2 when she was a point away from earning another.

    But Williams steadied herself there to hold. Then, when Wang served for the victory at 5-4 in the second, Williams seemed to shift the entire complexion of the match.

    She was 0 for 5 on break points until then but the sixth time was the charm. On the point of the match, with both players slugging away from the baseline, it was Williams who did what it took to take it.

    She was superior in the tiebreaker, too, and on they went to a third set.

    "During the second set, (I was) a little bit confused. ... I have to be calm, you know?" Wang said. "A little bit confused inside, but my mind always told me I had to focus on the court, focus on the point and trust myself."

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