Simona Halep set up a quarter-final skirmish with Serena Williams after coming from behind to get past Iga Swiatek on Sunday Night at the Australian Open.
I knew that's she gonna hit very strong and her topspin on the forehand is really tough to return. But after the first set I said that I have to change something, and I think I just did a step back, and I was trying to roll the ball more and to make her run, because from close body, she hits really strong. I was hitting too strong and too flat. I think I moved her a little bit better, and that's why she started to miss a little bit more. And then probably she lost the rhythm, and I got in the game. Simona Halep
Earlier in the day, Williams battled past Aryna Sabalenka in 3 tight sets to keep alive her hopes of equalling Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles.
Both matches were of high quality tennis and went the distance.
Halep, the No 2 seed in Melbourne, came from a set down to gain some revenge over Swiatek, who took her out at Roland Garros before securing the 2020 French Open crown, in an hour and 50 minutes, 3-6 6-1 6-4, and the Romanian now moves into her 14th Grand Slam quarter-final, and her 5th at the Australian Open.
The memory of Swiatek’s 6-1 6-2 rout last October assuaged, Halep can bask in the knowledge that she has now notched up her 100th Grand Slam victory.
On Sunday, she bounced back from another Swiatek barrage in the first set and held off the very real threat of a comeback by the 19-year old in the third set.
“I knew that’s she gonna hit very strong and her topspin on the forehand is really tough to return,” Halep said.
“But after the first set I said that I have to change something, and I think I just did a step back, and I was trying to roll the ball more and to make her run, because from close body, she hits really strong.
“I was hitting too strong and too flat. I think I moved her a little bit better, and that’s why she started to miss a little bit more.
“And then probably she lost the rhythm, and I got in the game.”
The Pole was simply supreme in every facet of her game in the opening set, pouncing on every short ball and turning defence into offence on several occasions.
She saved the first 2 break points of the match at 3-3 with clean winners, and then rolled through the rest of the set, winning 10 of its last 11 points in a big hurry.
Halep dug deep as Swiatek’s concentration wavered, and the Romanian used the lapse tp turn things around in the second.
The Pole’s ratio of 14 winners to 11 unforced errors in the first set lapsed into just 4 winners to 12 unforced errors in the second, while Halep decreased her error count from 10 in the opener to just 3 in the second and 4 in the third.
“I thought before the match that I have to be a little bit more aggressive than Paris,” Halep said afterwards. “In Paris I [was] very far back, and my ball didn’t go through the court.
“So I thought that it’s a better chance to go and hit. But then I saw that I do some mistakes… I don’t like to do easy mistakes.
“And then I just step back a little bit. I did a step back, and I wanted just to open the court more to have more time and to roll the ball better. So I did that, and that’s why I could win.”
Swiatek finished the match with a whopping 40 errors, including 19 in the final set alone.
After winning just 1 game in the second, her frustration became increasingly apparent in the decider as her back-court game deserted her and she dropped serve in the very first game on a double-fault.
In the 3rd game, she tried mixing things up by rushing forward, but did so on the wrong shot so Halep could calmly slot a passing shot down the line.
Out of ideas, Swiatek fought bravely and briefly rediscovered her feel on the forehand wing, smacking back-to-back winners to break Halep and level at 2-2.
“I felt that she was playing better, and she was more focused than the beginning of the set,” the former World No 1 said.
“She didn’t give up a point, which makes the life tougher during the match – but I did the same thing, and I’m happy that I could be a little bit stronger in the end.”
Swiatek was then undone in the very next game when 4 straight unforced errors produced a deficit the Pole could not recover from, although she did force Halep to serve for the match after taking 3 balls out of the air for winners to hold serve in the penultimate game.
Nevertheless, Halep served out the match without dropping a point, setting up her rendezvous with Williams.
“She’s the best,” Halep smiled when told she would meet Williams in the quarter-finals.
It was by no means plain-sailing for Williams, who barely scraped past Sabalenka in a battle of two remarkable power-hitters, 6-4 2-6 6-4.
It was a ferocious 4th-round battle on Sunday at Rod Laver Arena in the first ever meeting between two of the game’s biggest ball strikers.
“I didn’t want to be out of the tournament, so it felt good to kind of clutch that in the end and get through that,” Williams said. “I just felt like even games that I lost, I was so close to winning.
“Not all games, but probably most of those games. I just needed to play better on the big points. I knew that I could. I still hadn’t reached my peak. I was like: ‘Okay, Serena, you got this, just keep going’.
“It was definitely a lot of power … but I’m used to it in practice. I know how to get them. I was okay with it really.
“If she wants to play power, let’s go.”
The 23-time Grand Slam champion is undefeated in 2021, while Sabalenka had won 18 of her past 19 matches, and the American came out firing, but since her comeback to the sport as a mother, the American has found it harder to sustain her highest level throughout an entire match.
She began moving brilliantly, striking cleanly and trading lusty blows with Sabalenka, who was clearly up for the fight.
The Belarusian did not lose a point in her first 2 service games, attaining speeds of over 192km/h on her first delivery, and she bullied Williams with her powerful groundstrokes in the 7th game to earn break points.
The American elevated her game to escape with a hold and shot a glare down the court at her younger opponent.
After winning an incredible rally with athletic defence to move ahead 0-30 in the 10th game, Williams broke an error-prone Sabalenka to take the first set.
Then her intensity dipped, just as Sabalenka became more patient and reduced her unforced errors in the process to build leads of 3-0 and 5-1.
Williams’ first-serve percentage dropped as low as 21 per cent early in the second, but she held on in the opening game of the decider with an athletic backhand volley winner, and then leapt out to a 4-1 lead.
A frustrated Sabalenka came back, digging out some impressive returns to level the score at 4-4, but Williams’ greater experience forced 3 errors from the World No 7 to hold for 5-4, and she watched as the Belarusian unravelled in the final game.
A double-fault and 2 forehand errors were Sabalenka’s undoing and Williams clinched the decisive break to grab victory after 2 hours 9 minutes of enthralling play.
“I think it’s great depth again,” said Williams, surveying the field. “I think it’s been a lot of players that really could win the title since the beginning of the draw.
“I think there’s so many players that can come out and have won Grand Slams and can keep winning.
“It’s good. It’s good to see. It’s good to see that I’m in that mix, too.”