The third set of Serena Williams’s quarterfinal matchup at the Australian Open was following a familiar script Tuesday. She was serving for the match with a seemingly insurmountable lead at 5-1 against no. 7 seed Karolina Pliskova. The time difference between Australia and New York—and my propensity to pass out around 11, because, like Carmelo Anthony, I am unequivocally washed—has made watching the majority of the tournament an endurance test. Nevertheless, this was Serena Williams! Serving for the match! At 5-1! I could stay up and watch her close out the match in five-odd minutes.
Cut to 40-30 and a match point to send Williams to the semifinals. She gets her first serve in, except it’s called for a foot fault by the line judge. The crowd gasps accordingly. Calling foot faults, like calling travels in basketball, is technically part of a line judge’s job, but they are a notably rare infraction, especially on match point. It immediately brought to mind one of Williams’s career lowlights: a foot fault during the 2009 U.S. Open semifinal against Kim Clijsters, which led to Williams yelling at the line judge, even proclaiming that she’d shove the ball down her throat. (Williams lost and later apologized.)
Williams’s reaction this time was more measured. She quickly composed herself and got a second serve in—and that’s when everything went to shit. During the ensuing rally, Williams rolled her ankle trying to change directions for a passing shot and put a forehand into the net. Then she double-faulted, giving Pliskova a break point. An error from Williams’s backhand completed Pliskova’s break, but still left her in a one-break, three-game hole. The match, seemingly, was still over.
But Williams’s ankle continued to hinder her movement across the court and particularly affected her serves. Take nothing away from Pliskova, who held her nerve, hitting winners, avoiding unforced errors, and extending rallies—she found that perfect sweet spot between passivity and unnecessarily aggressive baselining. All told, Pliskova saved three additional match points and won every game from that point forward en route to winning the set, and the match, 7-5. The succinct highlight package ESPN put together doesn’t do Pliskova’s comeback—or the confounding nature of Williams’s collapse—nearly enough justice.
What to make of this? Well, for one, Pliskova’s comeback canceled the potential rematch of September’s contentious U.S. Open final, as Williams would’ve faced Naomi Osaka in the semifinals. While that matchup could provide an undeniably thrilling on-court product, it also would’ve resulted in a nightmarish ouroboros of hot takes repurposing the context of that Open final. It’s in all three players’ favor that none of the narratives constructed in bad faith will resurface.
But there is still an overarching narrative to consider: Was this quarterfinal a historically brilliant comeback by Pliskova, a historically awful collapse by Williams, a historically ill-fated injury, or a historically harsh decision by a line judge making their presence known on a match point? Well, can it be all of the above?
It seems like the most discernible answer, a series of events that produced one of the most bizarre Grand Slam matches in quite some time. We can’t know for sure what people will infer from this match 24 hours after the fact, let alone whether it’ll be considered a weird footnote to the tail end of Williams’s career, or the most notable stumble in her quest to surpass Margaret Court’s mark of 24 singles Grand Slam trophies (even though Court achieved this before the Open era, and Williams’s 23 titles are historic in their own right).
But people are going to think about this Williams loss a lot in the same way we tend to mistake every early Roger Federer exit from a Grand Slam for a harbinger of his impending retirement and every one of Rafael Nadal’s injuries as the one that will permanently diminish his punishing style of play. Is that fair to Williams—or Pliskova, for that matter—that this match will have an asterisk next to it because of myriad what-ifs tied to a foot fault? Perhaps not. But there isn’t really an alternative, either.