How Wang Qiang shocked Serena Williams at the Australian Open

Tennis


Wang Qiang‘s third-round upset of Serena Williams in the Australian Open on Friday will be remembered as one of the least expected results in Open-era history. It was not just because of the vast difference in the resumes of Qiang and the 38-year-old legend.

The last time the two met, at the US Open some five months ago, Williams demolished Wang in 44 minutes, yielding exactly one game and 15 points. This time, Wang battled the fiercest competitor the women’s game has ever known for two hours and 41 minutes, ultimately winning 6-4, 6-7 (2), 7-5. What was so different?

Here are the five outstanding reasons Wang won:

Composure

This win was built on the foundation of Wang’s tremendous poise. She was calm and purposeful from the start. She avoided dramatic displays or the overt expression of emotion – positive or negative – as she built a lead of a set and 5-4 over the 23-time Grand Slam singles champion.

But the real test came at that juncture, when Wang served for the match. In a signature, ferocious onslaught, Williams cracked the previously impenetrable wall of Wang’s defenses to record her first — and, as it turned out, only — break of the match. Williams ultimately won the set in a tiebreaker, ripping off the final four points.

We’ve all seen this kind of thing before. When an opportunity to close out a champion slips away, the confidence and composure of an underdog often melts away. Not this time. Wang actually played a tighter, more measured third set, finding the sweet spot between aggression and passivity. She bided her time, never losing focus or faith in herself. And she was amply rewarded.

As she told the on-court interviewer after the match, “Second set I was a little confused; I needed to be calm. Quiet. Trust myself.”

Serve and return

On a night when Williams, the No. 8 seed, needed to serve well, she did not. At the same time, Wang elevated her return game and kept Williams under constant pressure, frustrating her attempts to find her rhythm. Williams put just 56% of her first serves into play, and her average first-serve speed of 107 mph was just three mph faster than Wang’s. The differential in their second serves was the same.

Unable to put on a fireworks display, Williams found herself having to fend off high-quality returns by Wang. The No. 27 seed made just two unforced return errors (Williams mishandled 10). Her returns were sharp, relatively flat, and they consistently kept Williams from stepping into the court to dictate play.

Wang put 81 return points in play, Williams just 79.

The rock steady forehand

These days, the game is awash with women whose great strength is the two-handed backhand. The forehand has become the go-to side for players hoping to coax an error out of an opponent, especially in pressure situations. It just seems to break down more easily and frequently.

Wang didn’t smack a single winner in their previous match. In this one, she cracked eight forehand winners, just three fewer than Williams. And Wang made just 13 unforced errors off that wing, compared to 19 by Williams. When Williams did test that side, Wang often used the challenge to change the direction of the rally and generally had better luck than Williams when opening up the court.

Time and again the women exchanged warp speed rallies, and Wang cashed in time and again with her consistency, committing just 20 unforced errors to 56 by Williams.

Sustained power

It isn’t unusual for an underdog to come out spitting fire, challenging a favorite with an all-out assault on every ball. Often, that kind of player begins to overhit, makes errors and loses confidence. Wang punished the ball from the start, hitting relatively flat shots with such intent, accuracy, and force that you had to wonder if she would, like some overzealous prizefighter, punch herself out.

There was no letdown, though.

Confidence

It’s hard to imagine that Wang felt confident before this match, the memory of the last meeting still fresh in her mind. Yet Wang attacked this match as if she were playing with a rankings peer, and never once looked hesitant or intimidated — not even when Williams won the best point of the match. That one consisted of a lengthy rally during which both women swung from the heels, painted the lines, and played for angles until a Williams ended it with a cross-court forehand blast that saved her the set.

At that point, 5-5 in the second, it looked as if Wang might fold. But she fought back and immediately forced two break points in the next game. And while she didn’t convert either, it was a measure of her self-belief that she hadn’t given an inch — and wouldn’t for the rest of the match.

“Can you believe it?” Wang was asked afterward.

“Yes,” she said. “I think my team always believed I can do it.”



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