It happened again.
Ivanovic played inspired, lights-out tennis to take down the world No. 1, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, in front of a raucous Melbourne crowd, but Williams was sluggish, failing to impose her game. As such, her quest for major No. 18 came up short.
Since returning from her career-threatening foot surgery and life-threatening pulmonary embolism in 2011, Williams has won four majors, but she has failed to advance past the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, a tournament that she has won five times in her career.
Back in 2012, Williams lost in the fourth round to Ekaterina Makarova, the hard-hitting but erratic Russian who took out her sister Venus in the first round of this year's tournament. Coming into the 2012 tournament, Williams was only ranked No. 12 in the world, but she was still an overwhelming favorite for the title.
However, in a warm-up tournament in Brisbane, Williams rolled her ankle badly during a second-round match against Bojana Jovanovski. Though she went on to win that match, she withdrew before her quarterfinal tilt with Daniela Hantuchova. It was clear in her loss to Makarova that her movement was severely hampered, and with Makarova playing aggressive, within-the-lines tennis, there was nothing Williams could do.
Last year, she also came into the tournament as the overwhelming favorite, having won Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Olympics the previous year. Ranked No. 2, most expected her to take the No. 1 ranking from Victoria Azarenka during the fortnight.
But once again, a bad ankle came into play. In her first-round match in Melbourne against Edina Gallovits-Hall, Williams rolled her ankle badly and had to receive medical treatment. Though she went on to a 6-0, 6-0 victory over her overmatched opponent, her ankle remained heavily wrapped, and her movement was compromised as she marched through the tournament.
Still, it took until the quarterfinals for it to catch up to her, when the young and bold Sloane Stephens dug deep, moved Williams around the court and triumphed in a three-set victory on Rod Laver Arena.
After the loss, Williams tweeted a photo of her incredibly swollen ankle, clearly emphasizing the role that the injury had played in the defeat.
This year was a somewhat similar story. On a 25-match winning streak dating back to the U.S. Open last year, Williams was simply outclassing every opponent in her sight coming into the tournament, including Maria Sharapova and Azarenka, the closest people she has to rivals.
Williams started out the tournament well, but in-between her second- and third-round matches, there were rumblings that she had tweaked her back in practice. She didn't look to be moving well in the third round against Hantuchova, but she was able to win easily anyway. However, in the fourth-round match on Sunday, No. 14 Ana Ivanovic simply came out firing against Williams's unusually supbar serve.
The New York Times' Greg Bishop brought up something few could have seen coming:
Ivanovic said Williams’s serve did not seem as fast on Sunday, and while Williams garnered 13 aces, she did seem to lack some of her usual zip. Ivanovic dominated, in particular, William’s second serve, winning 59 percent of those points.
Ivanovic has made the final of the Australian Open before, way back in 2008 when she lost to Sharapova. That year she also won the French Open and claimed the No. 1 ranking. But since then, she's struggled. There's been a roller coaster of coaching changes, injuries and game adjustments that have left the once-prominent player a shadow of her former self.
But still, Ivanovic had been putting in the hard yards, getting herself back up to a Top 15 ranking and getting her fitness, strength and confidence back where they needed to be to make an impact. At the beginning of this year, things finally began to pay off—she won a title in Auckland at the start of the month with a win over Venus Williams in the final, and she looked in great form throughout the first week.
She played the match of her life to beat Williams, stepping into the baseline to return, finding the long-lost power on her forehand and moving around the court with precision.
Despite the fact that Williams' coach Patrick Mouratoglou confirmed his pupil's back injury to the press, via Tennis.com's Matt Cronin, Williams herself was quick to give Ivanovic all of the credit, telling AusOpen.com:
Like I said, I was just trying to do the best I could today. Maybe I wasn't the best physically, but that had nothing to do with it.
I think Ana just played a really good match. She did what it takes to win.
The truth is that as untouchable as she often seems, Williams is human just like the rest of us. She gets injured, she loses confidence and she simply has bad days on the tennis court. Because of her greatness, she's often able to fight through those obstacles, but when she comes across a zoning, in-form player who can expose her weaknesses, Williams can fall, just as she has the last three years in Australia.
When asked about how this loss effected her, Williams said (via AusOpen.com), "I plan on getting better." That should be a scary message to all of her future opponents. While Williams does lose, those losses are usually few and far between.