Serena just not herself at Australian Open
The Williams who is known for her determination and fighting spirit, known to turn around shaky sets and rough patches into memorable wins, wasn't in Melbourne on Monday. Instead, Williams was never the aggressor, and 56th-ranked Makarova dictated play through her flat, laser-like groundstrokes and precise serving en route to a 6-2, 6-3 upset.
It was Williams' first loss at the Australian Open in four years. It was also the biggest win of Makarova's career, who reached the first Grand Slam quarterfinals of her career. She will face Maria Sharapova, who beat Sabine Lisicki later in the day.
Williams was the last American -- male or female -- left in the first Grand Slam of 2012. And now, she goes home, too. She was out of rhythm from the start of the match, unable to get many aspects of her own game going.
As ESPN analyst Chris Evert said, "It was shocking. I've never seen her play so poorly."
There are many reasons Williams could list for her stunningly subpar performance: the searing 90-plus degree weather, her pre-Australian Open left ankle injury limiting her movement and serving motion, being a little rusty from not enough preparation coming into the tournament and sheer frustration over her limitations. She had not been tested in the first three rounds of the Australian Open, able to easily power her way through lesser opponents.
And despite all of the factors mounting against Williams on Monday, one of her magical comebacks still seemed quite logical. She has a deserved reputation as a fighter, and it was probable to believe she would impose her will and Makarova could crumble under the pressure.
But, on this day, it was Williams who came undone by her 37 unforced errors and winning just 31 percent of points on her second serve. Her frustration was visible and audible, from her screams of anger to the shaking of her racket.
The final two games of the second set encapsulated everything that went wrong for Williams, and displayed Makarova's calmness and strengths.
Makarova was up 4-3, and serving to increase her lead. Williams won the first point, and seemed to get more fired up, yelling "C'mon!" with her signature fist pump. Williams took the second point, her first win at the net in the match, with a decisive forehand punch volley to the open cross-court. The comeback seemed to be cranking up speed; she had that swagger back, like she was ready to play up to a standard that has led her to five Australian Open titles.
And as quickly as Williams' rebound came, it was gone. She blew an easy overhead shot, pushing it long over the hash mark and causing the Rod Laver Arena crowd to gasp at the error. Makarova appeared ready to concede the point, only to watch the ball sail long. Williams gave away the next point with another long groundstroke, and seemed to deflate a bit.
The game moved to deuce, and Williams had Makarova on the run. Makarova threw up a short defensive lob, and it seemed to be a gifted short ball for Williams. She rushed forward, primed for the forehand kill. But instead of driving it past Makarova or into the wide-open deuce side, Williams slammed it right to her lefty forehand. Makarova was ready, and ripped the ball cross-court past the lunging Williams at net. The crowd roared, and Williams seemed to shrink. Makarova held the next point and went up 5-3.
Williams had one more chance to get back into the match on her serve, but she didn't have another gear. There were more wild groundstrokes from Williams, and more steady play from Makarova. It took four match points, but Makarova's determination held to close out Williams.
There were just too many errors and too many chances lost for Williams. The same themes held from the start of the match: Makarova's ability to rip her groundstrokes off both sides down the line, play steady defense and have effective service games. Her lefty service, especially on the second, was not always a fastball, but it was nearly always well-placed with spin that jammed into Williams' body. Makarova got 66 percent of her first serves in and won 59 percent of those points. Her second serve was even more effective (70 percent).
Williams seemed to lack her normal speed, forcing her to try to end rallies before they got too physical. She went for too much, too often, paying the price with her frequently errant forehands.
She also tried to prepare for the lefty look of Makarova, practicing with former world No. 1 Thomas Muster. Unfortunately, it didn't seem to help, as Williams didn't seem to have a real plan of attack for the match. She was passive, trying to hang on behind the baseline while Makarova dictated play.
When asked after the match if she would have played this week if the event wasn't a Grand Slam, Williams answered with an emphatic "no," and she didn't say what was in store for her immediate playing schedule beyond Fed Cup. She can take time to let her ankle heal and get into better shape for the French Open, Wimbledon and London Olympics. Being 100 percent healthy could solve the movement, groundstroke and serving issues.
But what if this match signals more than just the consequences of an inopportune ankle injury or being unprepared? It was clear Makarova was unafraid of Williams, ready to take whatever power she was going dish out. Williams is now 30 and may naturally be a step slower after some big injuries and unable to recover into prime match shape. The new wave of players is just as strong and hit just as big as Williams; and they also play with toughness, something the tennis world learned by watching Williams over her amazing career.
It's ugly when you are beaten at your own game, especially in a Grand Slam. But there are two choices facing Williams in the aftermath of one of the worst losses of her career: deal with it and get better before the next challenge, or realize there could be more days like this to come.