Serena Williams did not start her fourth-round match at the Australian Open on the right foot. Williams, to serve first, took too long to prepare for the match. The 23-time Grand Slam champion received a time violation warning before the first point even began. And it looked like she was still in her chair for that first game. Four very poor points from Williams gave World No. 1 Simona Halep a break of serve to start the match.
Nothing else in the first set went badly for Williams, though. Her return was dominant–so dominant that Halep was unable to win points when she hit a second serve. The seven-time champion in Melbourne clearly had more power and covered the court better than Halep, and she very quickly ran away with the first set. In just 20 minutes, Williams won the opening set 61.
Early in the second set, Williams seemed to be doing the same. Halep actually managed to hold serve to open the set, but it took some big and perfectly-placed serves. Other than that, it was still Serena dominating, and Williams earned a break very early for a 2-1 lead. This match looked over, quickly, and we were heading towards a lopsided loss from the World No. 1 and top seed.
Then, though, Williams dropped her level of play just a little bit. She wasn’t playing poorly by any stretch–and she was still better than Halep–but the door was open, just a crack. The Romanian fought hard and managed to earn the break back straight away, and then it was all on her to hold serve. Three straight times, the World No. 1 fought for her service games. Well-placed serves and big shots when necessary, sprinkled in with a few Williams errors and a few lucky net-cords, gave Halep a 5-4 lead in the set. Then, surprisingly, Serena blinked.
Williams did not play a particularly poor service game, but she left the door open. Halep played a few huge shots, and Williams made a few mistakes, and a backhand sailed long to give Halep the break and the set, 64. It still looked like Serena was the better player and that Halep was barely hanging on, but the match was level and it was anyone’s to win.
Coming in to this match, the pair had gone to three sets three times, all of them in big tournaments. Two of those meetings (2011 Wimbledon and the 2016 US Open) were also the only other times this pair have met in Slams. Williams had won the third set in all three of those previous meetings.
The third set was different than the first two. Halep played noticeably better than in the first two sets. She was hanging with Williams in rallies, and her depth and weight of shot actually seemed to cause trouble. Unlike in the first two sets, when any error from Williams came because the American pushed too hard, now Halep was actually forcing the errors off the Williams racket.
The first five games passed without too much drama. Each player was playing very well and held serve. The sixth game turned into a classic, though, with huge points back and forth from each player. Williams saved three break points, and overcame obvious frustration at a dead net-cord (the third of the match for Halep) to hold for 3-3. Halep’s first serve then abandoned her, and Williams broke for a 4-3 lead.
Williams held, but Halep put together an easy hold (aided by some missed returns) to force the American to serve out the match. And serve it out she did. With a solid service game, Williams put away the set and the match, 64.
Williams moves on to the quarterfinals, where she will face Karolina Pliskova. Pliskova easily defeated Garbine Muguruza earlier in the day, but she did struggle in earlier rounds against Madison Brengle and Camila Giorgi. The American has been so close to catching Margaret Court‘s all-time record of 24 singles Slams. She’s now only three matches away from equalling the record
Halep will be disappointed that she couldn’t get the win, but either way this tournament was a success for the Romanian. Coach-less and in her return from an extended injury, Halep navigated her way through a difficult draw to reach her first Major Round of 16 since last year’s French Open.