MELBOURNE—"I can't play like that," said a downcast Serena Williams, lamenting her third round upset by rank outsider Wang Qiang at the Australian Open on Friday but declared her bid for a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title would go on.
The seven-times Melbourne champion stumbled to her earliest exit at the tournament in 14 years with an error-strewn 6-4 6-7(2) 7-5 loss to 27th seed Wang that raised queries about her hopes of chasing down Margaret Court's record major titles.
The stunning defeat at Rod Laver Arena came less than four months after Williams trounced Wang 6-1, 6-0 in the U.S. Open quarter-finals.
"Honestly, if we were just honest with ourselves, it's all on my shoulders. I lost that match. So it is what it is," Williams told reporters after racking up 56 unforced errors next to 43 winners.
"Like I said, it's not about the tournament, it's just like I can't play like that. Like, I literally can't do that again. That's unprofessional. It's not cool."
While Williams struggled to hit her targets throughout, her fighting spirit was never in doubt as she staved off a quicker defeat in the second set by breaking Wang as she served for the match at 5-4.
Williams' formidable serve sprung her from peril four times in the deciding set but the bullet-proof confidence which has defined her career was gradually chipped away as Wang defiantly dragged her into a tense dogfight.
Wang reprieved Williams twice on match point but the American could not make her pay and bowed out somewhat meekly with a backhand fired into the net.
In the early stages of pregnancy, Williams grabbed her seventh title at Melbourne Park in 2017 but has fallen agonizingly short of another major triumph since returning to the tour in 2018 as a mother.
She has reached four Grand Slam finals but failed to win any, with her recent U.S. Open defeat to Canadian talent Bianca Andreescu playing out in front of a partisan crowd in New York.
The window for another Grand Slam trophy may have grown smaller on Friday but 38-year-old Williams said she felt like she was "on the way up" and dismissed the idea that she might have made her last appearance in Melbourne.
"I'm not even thinking about anything, about not being here," she said.
"I'm way too old to play like this at this stage of my career. It's such a big tournament. It's no excuse, to be honest," she added, still churning over her performance.
"I'm definitely going to be training tomorrow. That's first and foremost, to make sure I don't do this again."
(Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Shri Navaratnam)
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