Four seeds advanced in straight sets to the Round of 16 at the Australian Open on Friday and set up blockbuster meetings against each other, with Naomi Osaka facing Garbiñe Muguruza and Aryna Sabalenka taking on Serena Williams for places in the quarter-finals.
Very happy also again with my performance today. I feel like the last match, it was a year ago in China. It was very tough battle. I felt like I was more prepared this time after many matches and after playing well. I feel like I took control early of the match and kept on going. Garbiñe Muguruza
Players have been thrilled to play in front of albeit reduced crowds, but there won’t be any spectators over the weekend due to 5 positive COVID tests at Melbourne’s Airport Holiday Inn that has plunged Melbourne back into lockdown from midnight for 5 days.
Only essential workers who cannot work at home will be allowed on site at Melbourne Park, and the players are designated as essential workers so the tournament will be played.
“It’s rough. It’s going to be a rough few days for I think everyone. But we’ll hopefully get through it,” said Williams, who was out on court winning her 3rd round match when the announcement was made.
“It’s not ideal. It’s been really fun to have the crowd back, especially here. It’s been really cool,” she added.
“But, you know what, at the end of the day we have to do what’s best. Hopefully it will be all right.”
Three-time Grand Slam champion Osaka urged fans on John Cain Arena to give her a rendition of local chant “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi! Oi! Oi!”, telling them: “Thanks for coming out, it’s so great to play in front you.”
AO Tournament Director Craig Tiley confirmed the tournament would continue with crowds for the rest of Friday but fans would be excluded from Saturday when players will enter a bio-secure ‘bubble’ similar to ones that have operated at tournaments around the world for much of the last 12 months during the pandemic.
“They’ve been doing this all year,” Tiley told reporters at Melbourne Park. “The last five days have been a unique experience for them and the next five will be back to what they know.”
Crowds at Melbourne Park were capped at 30,000 per day at the start of the tournament, which is around 50% of the usual attendance, but only 21,000 came through the gates on Thursday.
Organisers had been hoping for bumper crowds at the weekend and Tiley conceded that there would be a further financial impact from lost ticket sales.
“We’ve always said the number one priority was the safety of the community and our guests,” he added.
“We’ve got an event to put on and we’ve got to do it in a safe way.”
Meanwhile, Spain’s former World No 1, Muguruza, made swift work of Zarina Diyas from Kazakstan, 6-1 6-1, needing just 59 minutes to reach week 2.
Last year’s finalist is on an impressive roll of form, having only lost to World No 1 Ash Barty at the Yarra Valley Classic last week, and she has now only lost 10 games in her 3 matches at Melbourne Park.
“Very happy also again with my performance today,” Muguruza said. “I feel like the last match, it was a year ago in China. It was very tough battle.
“I felt like I was more prepared this time after many matches and after playing well.
“I feel like I took control early of the match and kept on going.
“So happy that this time was not a three-set match. Just happy with, of course, being in the second week of a Grand Slam. Just shows that my game is there.”
The No 14 seed can look forward to an encounter with the 3rd-seeded Osaka, who defeated Ons Jabeur from Tunisia, 6-3 6-2, in an hour and 18 minutes.
Osaka, a fellow former World No 1, has been equally meagre in he only 13 games in her 3 matches, all against former Grand Slam quarter-finalists.
The 2019 AO champion was pushed hard at the get-go, but survived 14 deuces and 5 break points against the Tunisian in her first 3 service games alone.
“My biggest thing I wanted to focus on today was my serve and my return, because those are the things that I can control,” the Japanese told the press. “I didn’t know what would happen during the point, but I do know that I can control if I can get the return back and I can control how I start off my serves.
“So I was just basing my entire plan around that.”
Osaka added that the key to dealing with Jabeur’s unpredictable shotmaking was to focus on the basics, and this enabled her to roll following the challenging start, striking 26 winners to 28 unforced errors in total and breaking the Tunisian 4 times to set up another tantalising first-time matchup with Muguruza.
“I’ve practiced with her once,” Osaka recalled. “But it was on grass, and I was younger.
“It was maybe a couple years ago. But I just remember being really impressed by her.
“I’ve watched her win Wimbledon and the French Open when I was younger, and I’ve always wanted to have the chance to play her. So for me, this is really exciting.”
Seven-time AO champion Williams needed to battle past a determined effort from Russian teenager Anastasia Potapova, 7-6(5) 6-2, saving 2 set points in the first set and overcoming 31 unforced errors to set up an enticing fourth-round meeting against Aryna Sabalenka, the Belarusian No 1.
Earlier in the day on Rod Laver Arena, Sabalenka eased to a 6-3 6-1 win over Williams’ compatriot Ann Li, improving her record to 18-1 since October.
“It’s a big challenge, but it’s a tough one, but I’m going to do everything I can to prepare myself for that match, like mentally be ready to get this win,” Sabalenka told reporters after her 60-minute victory over the in-form World No 69, ending the latter’s 6-match winning streak.
“She’s a great player, and it’s always a big challenge to play against these kind of players. But I’m going to do everything I can to get this win.
“We’re all here for the wins and I’m going to do everything.”
Sabalenka is bidding for her first career Grand Slam quarter-final appearance, and it will a first-time meeting with Williams.
“The first time [I saw her play], I think… I was around 13 years old. I think I said, ‘I want to hit even stronger than her,” Sabalenka said, laughing.
“I don’t know if it was, was it smart or not, but [at] that point, I was thinking like, ‘Wow, she’s really powerful. I want to be like powerful, too, and I want to dominate on the tour the same like she do.'”
Potapova could only win 3 games against Williams in their last meeting, which was in the first round in Melbourne a year ago, but the Russian 19-year-old showed just how much she has improved since then as she went toe-to-toe with the 23-time Grand Slam champion over the course of an hour and 37 minutes.
Twice breaking Williams’ serve in the first set, Potapova’s first-strike baseline tennis earned her leads of 4-2 and 5-3, which included 2 set points on her serve in the 9th game, but then the World No 101’s own delivery faltered and she served 6 double faults in all to allow the American back into the match.
“I just was not striking in that first set. I was making errors, I was slow,” Williams told ESPN’s Rennae Stubbs after the match. “At one point, i just started playing defence because it was the only thing I could do.
“It was good to get through that match. The first set was extremely tight. I was a little tight, but it worked out. I was able to play a little more free in the second set.”
In all, the teenager held a trio of leads from then on, but advantages of 3-1 and 5-3 in the tiebreak, and 2-0 in the second set were erased by Williams’ runs of 5 straight points and 6 straight games.