Serena Williams’ choke was the most recorded in women’s tennis

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SERENA WILLIAMS was one point away from a memorable replay. On January 23, the 23-time major champion came close to winning her Australian Open quarter-final against seventh seed Karolina Pliskova. A win would have earned Ms Williams a semi-final place against Naomi Osaka, the 21-year-old who knocked her out in last year’s controversial US Open final. But after being 5-1 up in the deciding set in the quarter-finals, the most dominant player in modern women’s tennis blew four match points, while taking her – out a double fault and a rare foot fault (caused by crossing the baseline while serving). Even more shockingly, Ms. Williams lost 11 consecutive points on her serve, which led to Ms. Pliskova’s stunning comeback win. What if the most trusted champion in the sport just had the biggest fall of all time?

Even for normal players, it is very unlikely that they will lose from the game. On the women’s professional circuit, a player who gets this close to winning does so 97% of the time. A simple prediction model, which assumes that both opponents are of equal strength, suggests that a player serving for the match in a deciding set at 5-1 should up and win 40-30 98.9% of the time.

But Ms. Williams is no ordinary player. During her entire grand-slam career, spanning 21 years and nearly 400 matches, she had only previously been defeated after winning a match point twice (the last in 2010 ). Even at the age of 37 – six years older than any other woman in the top 25 – and after a year of maternity leave in 2017, the American has continued to surpass her competitors. She reached two finals in 2018, and was the favorite for this year’s Australian Open. After knocking out top seed Simona Halep in the fourth round, betting markets gave her a 72% chance of overtaking Ms Pliskova. At the first match level, the live chances of a Czech player somehow falling to victory fell to 250-1, or 0.4%.

Since the practice of collecting point-by-point data for tennis matches is a relatively new practice, we cannot be sure where this revolution lies in the long history of the sport. But among the 2,300 women’s matches hand-charted by volunteers for the Match Charting Project, an online repository of tennis data, there isn’t an example of a fall either. Most of the project’s sample consists of high-profile matches from the 21st century, but there are a handful of recent grand-slam duels. The most famous choking incident in tennis – when Jana Novotna appeared to lose the ability to hit the ball against Steffi Graf in the 1993 Wimbledon final, after serving for a 4-1 match point in the decision set – looks unique compared to Ms. Williams’ fall, with a maximum win probability of 95.6%.

Ms Williams insisted in her post-match press conference that she was not “choking”. But perhaps it was even more likely that she lost from the game, which was among the most powerful of all time. In the entirety of her third-round match against 18-year-old Ukrainian Dayana Yastremska, Ms. Williams dropped just ten points on her serve. It is unique to lose 11 in a row, as she did against Ms Pliskova. In her previous 131 recorded matches, her worst streak had been seven points – and that was against her sister, Venus, in 2002 on a returner-friendly clay court.

It is difficult to offer any other explanation than that Ms Williams suffered a thorough case of “the yips”. Sometimes even the staunchest winners can risk losing. Although Ms. Williams has rarely blown her own match points, she has lost her cool at key moments. Last year’s loss to Ms Osaka was marred by a row with the umpire over coaching, which is banned at games. The bickering ended with Ms Williams scoring several points. In the 2009 US Open semi-final against Kim Clijsters, she lost a match after threatening a line judge who had called a foot fault.

But the odd tantrum in crucial matches has rarely stopped former champions from rediscovering their form (as fans of John McEnroe and Andre Agassi can attest). In fact, after the defeat of Ms. Clijsters caused by foot, Ms. Williams won two of the three majors to come. And her setback against Ms Osaka does not appear to have affected her form this year. She bit her tongue on Wednesday, even as she sailed out. She remains likely to earn that rematch with Ms. Osaka in a future tournament. If history is any guide, it will be held again on one of the sport’s biggest stages.

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