Serena Williams staved off a spectacular fightback from world number one Simona Halep to reach the quarter-finals of the Australian Open on Monday and remain on course for her first Grand Slam triumph since becoming a mother. Williams’ thrilling 6-1 4-6 6-4 win was a major step towards the 37-year-old American great equalling Australian Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 Grand Slam wins as she set up a last-eight meeting with Czech seventh seed Karolina Pliskova.
The seven-time Australian Open champion was eight weeks pregnant when she won the last of her 23 Grand Slam titles at Melbourne Park and only returned to tennis last year after the birth of her daughter Alexis Olympia in September 2017. She made two more Grand Slam finals last year only to lose the finals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open but this triumph over the world’s leading player felt like another hugely significant step on the road to regaining her old dominance.
Williams showed she has lost none of her brutal power and athleticism against French Open champion Halep, who has finished the last two years on top of the women’s rankings. The Romanian broke Williams’ serve in the first game but that was the only one she managed for the rest of the opening set as the American bulldozed her way through the set in 20 minutes, serving it out with an ace.
Coming into the match with eight wins in her nine encounters against Halep, it looked as if Williams would breeze through the match after the opening set mauling she handed out. But the 27-year-old fought back by forcing to move Williams more and drew level at one set apiece after breaking her a second time.
“That’s why she’s number one. She literally lifted her game to a new level. I didn’t. I kind of stayed at the same level, and I should have looked at my game, as well,” Williams told reporters. “But it’s a part of this journey on my way back. It’s 10 months, so I can’t be too upset at myself. I felt like I did have an opportunity to win that in straight sets, but then I’m playing the number one player in the world.”
The deciding set turned into a war of attrition as both players landed heavy groundstrokes and Williams had to save three break points for a crucial 3-3 hold. Williams landed the decisive break in the next game before holding firm to seal the match in an hour and 47 minutes when Halep hit a forehand wide.
“I will start with a joke. I felt like I had been hit by a train in the first set. Everything was too fast,” Halep said with a wide grin, leaving reporters to burst out laughing. “I didn’t get scared about the first set, because I knew I have a better level. After the first set, I got fire inside myself, and I said that now I start the match. So it was much better. Game by game, I felt that my level is growing, and I had more confidence to go through it.”
For a place in the semi-finals, Williams will meet Pliskova, who thrashed twice Grand Slam champion Garbine Muguruza 6-3 6-1 earlier on Monday.
“We have had good matches. She’s beaten me on an occasion or two or three,” Williams said of her next opponent. “She’s always someone that comes out and serves big and plays well. I’ve got to return a little bit better the next day that we play, but I will be ready. I’m ready. She’s ready. Let’s do it.”
Inspired by young guns, Naomi Osaka marches on in Melbourne
US Open champion Naomi Osaka said she drew inspiration from Stefanos Tsitsipas’s shock win over Roger Federer after booking her maiden Australian Open quarter-final spot with a grinding 4-6 6-3 6-4 win over Anastasija Sevastova on Monday. The Japanese fourth seed had to come back from a set down for a second successive match at Melbourne Park, having survived a big scare against Taiwan’s wily Hsieh Su-Wei on Saturday.
At a tournament featuring thrilling runs by a number of youthful players, 21-year-old Osaka hunkered down to watch 20-year-old Tsitsipas take on Federer on Sunday, and seeing the Greek topple the Swiss master gave her an additional spur.
“I was watching all these kids winning and saw Tsitsipas beat Federer last night and was like, ‘whoa’,” Osaka said on court after beating Latvian 13th seed Sevastova at Rod Laver Arena. “I was watching him and also (Frances) Tiafoe, they were playing really well. They came out here against the top players and won. I wanted to do that as well.”
Tiafoe had a 21st birthday to remember as the American upset former semi-finalist Grigor Dimitrov in another upset on Sunday. Having beaten Serena Williams in straight sets during the U.S. Open final, there was nothing particularly shocking about Osaka reaching the quarter-finals in Melbourne where she will meet sixth seed Elina Svitolina. Yet she was grateful not to join a long list of first-time Grand Slam champions that have flamed out quickly at their next major.
“To reach the quarter-finals here, of course, I’m very happy,” she told reporters. “A little part of me is relieved, because I have never reached the quarter-finals of a tournament (at) a Grand Slam aside from New York. So, definitely this was one of my goals.”
Another will be to start better against Svitolina, the reigning WTA Finals champion. Osaka was far from her best as she struggled to hold serve against U.S. Open semi-finalist Sevastova and berated herself regularly during the sun-bathed clash at Rod Laver Arena. She held firm when it counted, however, breaking Sevastova in the seventh game of the decider before sealing the match with an imperious forehand down the line.
Osaka’s post-match media conferences have been entertaining, a mix of awkwardness, humour and disarming candour. Having known only tennis since a child, she said she still needed to mature both on and off the court.
“I think I don’t really have to deal with the things that I guess normal people have to deal with,” she said.
“Outside of the court, too, my maturity level isn’t that big. I don’t have the biggest responsibilities. I just play tennis, and that’s basically it. On and off the court, definitely I think I need to improve that.”
Elina Svitolina masters Madison Keys to unlock passage to last eight
Elina Svitolina recovered after dropping the second set to secure a place in the Australian Open quarter-finals with a 6-2 1-6 6-1 victory over American Madison Keys on Monday.
The sixth seed, who has claimed 13 tour titles including at last year’s WTA Finals in Singapore, has struggled to make an impact at the Grand Slams but the Ukrainian is now hoping to progress beyond the last eight at a major for the first time.
“(Singapore) gave me a huge boost of confidence, so I don’t think about the other, the past anymore,” the 24-year-old Svitolina, who has reached two quarter-finals in Melbourne to go with two more at the French Open, told reporters.
“I only look forward. I look for next challenge. I try to win as many matches as I can, as many titles as I can, and this is the goal for the year.” Reaching the last four will be a tough task, however, with Svitolina next meeting U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka after the Japanese fourth seed defeated Latvia’s Anastasija Sevastova 4-6 6-3 6-4 in their fourth round encounter.
Svitolina started brightly and raced to a 4-0 lead with two early breaks of serve as her 17th-seeded American opponent struggled to find her range and rhythm.
After returning to the court from a medical timeout to have her toe taped up, Svitolina converted her second set point when Keys found the net with a return as she registered her 11th unforced error of the match.
Keys, a quarter-finalist in Melbourne last year, roared back in the second set as she finally managed to tame her powerful groundstrokes, sprinting to a 5-0 lead before converting her second set point to level the match.
SUNNY SIDE DOWN
Svitolina was wobbling but the tenacious base-liner dug deep to save five break points in a marathon third game of the decider lasting more than 16 minutes, the vital hold giving her the impetus to kick on for victory.
“I knew that I had to be strong mentally and physically in that point, because the sun was very strong in that side, and I knew that I’m going to have a chance on the next game on her serve,” Svitolina added.
The inability to secure the break appeared to knock the stuffing out of the 2017 U.S. Open finalist in the next game as the American committed three more unforced errors and served a double-fault to hand Svitolina the break.
Sensing victory, Svitolina did not allow Keys any more opportunities and broke again in the sixth game before converting her first match point to seal the contest in an hour and 36 minutes.
“I always try to put pressure on the opponent. I think I’m in quarter-final because I have been solid in all the matches. It worked really good,” added Svitolina, who performed a celebratory dance after securing the win.
“I try to be there all the time with my game, try to bring the best. And I know that I can challenge good players and I can win. The Singapore week showed that I can be, you know, out there and winning tough matches.”
Svitolina and Osaka have met five times before with the Ukrainian holding a 3-2 lead in their head-to-head rivalry.
Karolina Pliskova pounds Garbine Muguruza to reach quarters
Karolina Pliskova thrashed double Grand Slam champion Garbine Muguruza 6-3 6-1 on Monday to reach the Australian Open quarter-finals for the third year in succession. The Czech seventh seed broke former French Open and Wimbledon champion Muguruza five times in the one-sided clash in the afternoon sunshine at Margaret Court Arena.
Needing only 24 minutes to win the second set, Pliskova earned two match points on Muguruza’s serve and sealed the win when the out-of-sorts Spaniard smashed a backhand long. Pliskova will meet the winner of the showdown between top seed Simona Halep and Serena Williams for a place in the semi-finals as she continues her bid for a maiden Grand Slam.
The Czech has been one of a string of top women players in the past decade who have risen to the world number one ranking but failed to cement their spot with Grand Slam success. She came close in 2016 when she was beaten in the final of the U.S. Open by Angelique Kerber.
The 26-year-old has not surpassed the quarter-finals at a Grand Slam since, but looks in fine touch at her seventh main draw appearance at the Australian Open. “Of course I don’t play the best tennis always in Grand Slams, but I think I have been doing a good job to go through some matches in the first weeks, which are always pretty tough because of this pressure,” Pliskova told reporters. “It’s not that I’m completely without stress. I think everybody has it, but the pressure here is a little bit bigger. As a seeded (player), I feel I should go far.”