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Serena's Disappointing Exit

Charles E. Sutton | 1/26/2013, 5:18 p.m.

Serena Williams was well on her way to winning her 16th Grand Slam tournament title, another victory on the way to catching Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova with their 18 championships. Who knows, she may even catch Helen Wills (19), Steffi Graf (22) and Margaret Court (24).

Williams suffered an ankle injury during a 6-0, 6-0 first-round victory that didn't stop her from competing in the Australian Open, however, the back spasms she experienced in her quarterfinal match Wednesday night in Melbourne did.

On Monday night, she used her powerful serve to destroy No. 14 seed Maria Kirilenko. But with the back spasms limiting her serve, she was unable to intimidate 19-year-old American Sloane Stephens. So a young player from southern Florida who looked stunned as her own round of 16 match 48 hours earlier against Bojana Jovanovski slipped away suddenly ended up in the semifinals.

Stephens rallied in that third set against Jovanovski to grab a 6-1, 3-6, 7-5 win and earn the opportunity to face Williams in the quarterfinals. She then took advantage when Williams was hampered by that sore lower back in the second set of a 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 win.

In all likelihood, no one was going to beat a healthy Williams in this tournament. The last time she lost a match was way back in August, and she beat Stephens with relative ease at a tournament in Brisbane the week before. It's true that No. 1 seed Victoria Azarenka and No. 2 seed Maria Sharapova both made it to the semifinals. But Williams defeated Azarenka in the U.S. Open final in September and had won nine straight times against Sharapova, including in the Australian Open final in 2007 and at Wimbledon in 2010.

At 31 years of age, the reality is that the only thing that can prevent Williams from dominating at a high level for a few more years is her physical health. For years, she has fought off foot and ankle issues. A sore back would be a different type of injury and an additional burden. Fortunately, she has more than enough time to recover before the French Open takes place in May. She may opt to limit the number of tournaments she plays in prior to traveling to Paris this spring, where she'll play in this year's second major tournament. Had she been successful in Melbourne, it would have been Williams' sixth Australian Open championship.