Serena Williams Falls at the Australian Open, Leaving Field Wide Open

Why her surprising loss is Ana Ivanovic's gain in more ways than one

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Jason Reed / Reuters

Serena Williams of the U.S. serves to Ana Ivanovic of Serbia during their women's singles match at the Australian Open 2014 tennis tournament in Melbourne January 19, 2014.

Women’s tennis isn’t like men’s tennis, where there’s a Big Four or Big Three or Big Two or whatever you want to call it. In women’s tennis, there’s Serena Williams and then there’s everyone else. China’s Li Na and the Czech Republic’s Petra Kvitová have shown flashes of greatness, and Victoria Azarenka has proved herself a worthy No. 2, but this is Serena’s game. When she’s on, she’s unbeatable. On Sunday afternoon in Melbourne, she wasn’t on.

With Serena off her game (and whispers building that she was suffering with back problems), Serbia’s Ana Ivanovic took advantage and toppled the world No.1 4-6, 6-3, 6-3. The loss—already dubbed the upset of the tournament by many—marks Serena’s first defeat since last August. Though she out-aced Ivanovic 13-1, Serena’s other numbers were far from impressive. She uncharacteristically made 33 unforced errors against just 22 winners (only three in the final set). Not even the best in the world can overcome a deficit like that.

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Serena appeared completely out of sorts throughout much of the second and third sets, yanking forehands wide and dumping backhands into the net. Part of that can be attributed to the fact that she wasn’t in top form—after the match she confirmed her back pain—but equally crucial was the relentless pressure that Ivanovic applied. The 26-year-old Serb dropped one match point up 5-2 in the third set and Serena came roaring back to win the game, but Ivanovic buckled down and easily held serve to advance to the quarterfinals.

Though Serena’s premature departure will certainly be the story in coming days, the significance of Ivanovic’s win should not be overlooked. Since winning her first—and up to this point, only—Grand Slam title at Roland Garros in 2008 at the age of 20, Ivanovic has been best known for her inability to live up to her tremendous potential. At just over six feet, Ivanovic is one of the few players on tour capable of matching Serena’s physicality, but since winning the French Open more than five years ago, her athleticism had earned her just one quarterfinals appearance in 22 Grand Slam tournaments.

In the last two years, however, Ivanovic has shown glimpses of rediscovering her once-vaunted potential. She looked poised to make a run at the U.S. Open last September, but fell to Azarenka in a hotly-contested three-setter. Then she won her Aussie Open tune-up earlier this month, claiming the title by defeating Venus Williams in the final. And now with Serena dispatched, her path to a finals showdown with Azarenka is clearing up. She’ll need to dispatch Canadian Eugenie Bouchard and Li Na, but if her match against Serena was any indication, Ivanovic is more than capable. A strong showing during the tournament’s second week would go a long way toward reestablishing Ivanovic as one of the game’s most talented—and dangerous—players.