MELBOURNE, Australia — Time did not freeze, like a televised sporting event placed on pause, during the 13 months Serena Williams spent away from tennis. The absence of Williams, who has averaged one title in every three majors played, allowed younger players to wade deeper into the draws and grow their games and their confidence.
Karolina Pliskova, 26, was already on the rise when a pregnant Williams took her leave from tennis after winning the 2017 Australian Open. The previous year, Pliskova had graced the final of the United States Open, beating Williams on the way. But it was the only Grand Slam event where she advanced past the third round in 2016.
With Williams out of the picture from February 2017 to March 2018, the ascent of Pliskova continued apace. Advancing to the quarterfinals or better in 15 of 20 tournaments in 2017, Pliskova assumed the women’s world No. 1 ranking that July, two months after Williams’s last stay there.
In the eight majors contested since Williams’s last Grand Slam title, at the 2017 Australian Open, Pliskova has made it to the quarterfinals or better in five. With her 6-4, 4-6, 7-5 defeat of Williams on Wednesday in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open on Wednesday, Pliskova avenged a two-set quarterfinal loss to Williams at last year’s U.S. Open.
The way Pliskova pulled out the victory was telling; she played the big points as fearlessly as Williams, 37, once did. Down by 1-5 in the third set, Pliskova won six consecutive games and staved off four match points by swinging for the lines and serving to dime-sized spots. She did to Williams what Williams did to Kim Clijsters in the 2003 semifinals here. In that match, Williams staved off two match points while climbing back from a 1-5 deficit, then beat her sister, Venus, in the final to hold all four major titles concurrently.
That Williams had an aura that sometimes all but overshadowed her. The Williams standing across the net from Pliskova hasn’t appreciably changed. In spotting the rest of the women’s game a full year, she simply gave everybody else a chance to catch up to her level of intensity and fight.
“This time I just feel somehow different and more confident,” Pliskova said. “I’m not doubting myself.”
Williams held her first match point while serving at 5-1 in the third. She was called a foot fault on her first serve. Then at the end of the point she turned her left ankle after Pliskova wrong-footed her. Williams never called for a trainer to treat her ankle.
“At that point I didn’t feel like I needed it or I didn’t feel like it would be a big deal,” Williams explained.
There was a good reason she felt that way. Many times over the years, less than Williams’s best was good enough.
But that no longer is the case.
Williams’s serve has always been the weapon she can lean on when all else fails. On Wednesday, Williams didn’t win another point on her serve after turning her ankle.
Williams said of Pliskova: “I think she just kind of started playing really, really good. I don’t think it had anything to do with my ankle per se.”
Williams was right. Anyone who says she lost because her level of play dropped in the last six games is missing the mark. Williams lost because during the year that she spent growing a child instead of a game, Pliskova and the other top players got better.
If Williams is to resume her winning ways, she will have to play better than she did in 2017, when she vanquished Venus here for her 23rd major title.
It is not impossible. Williams’s mission, if she chooses to accept it, is to forget the past and resolutely move forward, one honest day’s work at a time. The good news for tennis is that she seems committed to the chase of Margaret Court and her record 24 major singles titles.
This was Williams’s eighth official tournament since her return from a difficult pregnancy. The golfer Tiger Woods, with whom Williams is friendly, won the Tour Championship in his 18th official start after his return from back surgery. As long as Williams is patient, she can once again prosper.
Speaking earlier in the week, Williams’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, said it was unrealistic to expect Williams to hit the tour winning after the birth of her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. She won no titles last year, but reached the final at Wimbledon and the United States Open.
“You cannot buy time,” he said. “Things take time. To get back to shape, back in shape after a baby, a few months are not enough. I mean, still she could have won because she’s doing things other people don’t, but it was — I mean, the story said it was too early. That’s it.”
Williams didn’t win six majors before her 22nd birthday because she was a patient person. But motherhood is a daily practice in living in the moment, and Williams is nothing if not a diligent student. Earlier in the tournament, she said her year off “gave me a new fire, a new purpose, a new meaning.”
It did the same for her opponents, which is why the women’s game is infinitely more interesting now that Williams is back.