Serena Williams of the US serves against Jessica Pegula of the US during their women's singles final match during the Auckland Classic tennis tournament in Auckland on January 12, 2020. (Photo: AFP)
America's Serena Williams suffered a stunning third-round defeat to China's Wang Qiang at the Australian Open on Friday, pushing Margaret Court's 47-year-old record for career Grand Slam titles further from her grasp.
Williams, 38, was the bookies' favourite to win a record-equalling 24th Major at Melbourne Park but she came unstuck against a determined Wang, who won 6-4, 6/7 (2/7), 7-5 -- after taking only one game last time they met.
The upset means Williams, whose last Major win was at the 2017 Australian Open when she was pregnant, has fallen short at eight Grand Slams -- including four finals -- since returning from having her baby.
It further extends her long quest to equal Court, 77, who is in Melbourne this week to celebrate the 50th anniversary of her 1970 calendar-year Grand Slam.
Williams' defeat came just minutes after her close friend Caroline Wozniacki was knocked out by Tunisia's Ons Jabeur, bringing a tearful end to the former world number one's final tournament before retiring.
"I honestly didn't think I was going to lose that match," said Williams, adding that she still believed she would win an elusive 24th Major.
"I definitely do believe or I wouldn't be on tour," she said.
The shock result removes a major hurdle for Australia's world number one Ashleigh Barty, who had been on course to meet Williams in the semi-finals and moved smoothly into round four.
Barty, bidding to become the first Australian champion since 1978, hit form in a 6-3, 6-2 demolition of Elena Rybakina, saying she had played her best tennis so far this year.
"I felt I needed to be really switched on for this," she said. "I feel it's the best I've played this summer so far."
- Coco v Osaka -
Wang, the 27th seed, was walloped 6-1, 6-0 by Williams in last year's US Open quarter-finals, triggering a torrent of criticism from Chinese fans at the manner of the defeat.
But even after failing to serve out the match in the second set, the 28-year-old steeled herself and she broke Williams for the third time to claim the biggest scalp of her career.
"I think my team always believed I can do it," said Wang. "After last time I did really hard work on and off court, I believed I could do it."
Williams, seeded eight, started slowly against the fast, positive Wang, and it looked all over when she was a set and a break down with Wang serving for the match.
However, Williams won a titanic 24-shot rally to break the Chinese player for the first time, raising her arms in triumph, and dominated the tie-breaker to level the match.
In the tense final set, both players held firm but Wang pounced when Williams was serving to stay in it, converting her third match point as the American netted.
Later, Roger Federer will need to avoid a second Grand Slam upset at the hands of home favourite John Millman, after the 2018 US Open, if he wants to bring up 100 wins at the Australian Open on Friday.
Reigning men's champion Novak Djokovic, who dismissed Tatsuma Ito in round two, thrashed another Japanese opponent, Yoshihito Nishioka, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 to make the round of 16.
And huge interest surrounds the meeting later between 15-year-old American Coco Gauff and defending champion Naomi Osaka, 22, the second instalment of a rivalry that could run and run.