Australian Open: Williams comes out on top in battle with Halep

American stayed on course for a 24th grand slam title after a dramatic win in Melbourne

The last time Serena Williams came to Melbourne, she was five weeks pregnant and went on to win the Australian Open for the seventh time. On day eight of the 2019 championships, two years older at 38, she dredged up a sliver of her old magic to hold off the robust challenge of the world No1 Simona Halep and edge closer to joining Margaret Court on the all-time record of 24 majors.

It was a typically mercurial performance, that swung between brilliant and desperate.

To get another shot at the prize, the remarkable American has to beat Karolina Pliskova in the quarter-final on Wednesday, and either Naomi Osaka – who famously ignored her meltdown in the final at Flushing Meadows last September to win the US Open – or the sixth seed, Elina Svitolina.

But she flirted with defeat on the eighth evening of the tournament, saving three break points in the third just as Halep seemed to be taking charge. Williams, not at her best, dug deep, broke and held, and the win was hers 6-1, 4-6, 6-4 after an hour and 47 minutes on a mild evening in Rod Laver Arena.


She said courtside, “It was a really intense match, with some incredible points. It’s just great to be back out playing again on this court. I really needed to elevate my game. She’s the No1 player in the world, and there’s a reason why. I’m such a fighter. I never give up. It’s definitely something that’s innate. I work so hard, and it’s just a miracle that I’m here. I keep trying, fighting for every point.”

Williams had given up only nine games in her three previous games – a first-week strike rate she hasn’t matched in a major since the 2013 US Open - but she had to step up in class from the likes of Dayana Yastramenska and Eugenie Bouchard.

The world No1 and the real No1 exchanged breaks at the start, before the American, who brought an 8-1 lead to their ninth encounter, pulled away to 4-1 inside quarter of an hour, and polished off the first set in 20 minutes. This was a proper blitz. Then followed the grind, ending with Williams forcing one final tired forehand out of the Romanian.

As happens to players involved in stamina-draining matches, Garbine Muguruza paid for her late-night marathon against Johanna Konta when Pliskova overpowered her in exactly an hour for the loss of four games. The Czech is unlikely to have as easy a time against Williams.

“She makes you be on every single ball,” Muguruza said. “I struggled a bit with the heat and the conditions.”

Osaka plays Svitolina in the other quarter-final on that side of the draw and on Monday she defied her own history when, for the second time in a row, she lost the first set but still went through, beating 12th seed Anastasija Sevastova 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 in an hour and 47 minutes on Laver. The Japanese player invariably relies on a quick start to overwhelm her opponent and came into the this tournament comforted by the fact that she had won 57 matches in a row when taking the first set.

However, she has tripped up early twice now, dropping the first set to Su-Wei Hsieh in round three and doing the same on Monday against the stubborn Latvian.

She put the minor statistical setback behind her in a strong finish, and said later, ”Technically I’m supposed to be good at starting matches. I have a pretty good record winning the first set and then winning the match. I have played two really great players over the past few days, and, I don’t know, I just have to adjust to that feeling of being overwhelmed a little bit.”

Against Svitolina, she won in straight sets here in the fourth round three years ago, but had to come from a set down in the semi-finals in Tokyo later in the year. The Ukrainian won their other three matches, two as a front-runner.

On Monday, Svitolina had her own dip-then-rip, beating Shua Zhang, 6-2, 1-6, 6-1 in just over an hour and a half.

Osaka said of the sixth seed, “She played well at the end of the year, won the WTA Finals. I was really happy for her, because everyone was writing her off. She wasn’t doing well leading up to that. She’s playing well again here. When she has the chance, she does like to attack.”

Osaka also revealed she sometimes now wears a wig when she goes out, especially in Japan. “People who are famous, I feel kind of bad for them, because it’s, like, you can never really truly enjoy going outside and stuff. So, for me, I feel kind of lucky that I’m unknown.” In the Sahara Desert, maybe. – Guardian service