The women’s quarter-final places were completed on Monday at the Australian Open, Day 8 of the championships, with an in-form Simona Halep leading the line-up after a fine display against Japan’s Naomi Osaka despite struggling with an ankle problem.
The World No 1 injured herself in her first-round match against Destanee Aiava, but has since won three contests, including a three hours and 45 minutes epic against Lauren Davis, to advance to the last-eight.
I think she played amazing match and it’s always tricky to play against her. I’m really happy about how I was able to change the match and turn around and playing, then, good tennis again in important moments, especially in the third set Angelique Kerber
Halep had a relatively easy time of it compared to Angelique Kerber’s comeback victory over Su-Wei Hsieh, which was a long distance marathon.
It took all of the German’s skills to navigate past the crafty Hsieh, and she was thrilled to cross the finish line first.
The 32-year-old Hsieh looked like she was well on her way to taking down another huge scalp in Melbourne, following her defeats of Garbiñe Muguruza and Agnieszka Radwanska, when she led Kerber by a set and was sending her across every inch of the court in a fierce battle.
Last year, Kerber might have folded, but the German is on a winning streak and had no intention of giving up, despite all the frustrations.
The former World No 1 had to dig deep to complete the 4-6 7-5 6-2 win over the ever-tricky Hsieh and set-up a mouthwatering quarter-final against American Madison Keys.
“Credit to her she played an unbelievable match,” a relieved Kerber said.
“It was a very high-quality match from the first ball. I don’t know how I won, I was running everywhere and every time she had an answer. For sure we will see a lot more from her in 2018.”
Kerber made a confident start and sped to an 2-0 lead, looking to replicate her sizzling form in dismantling Maria Sharapova in the third round, but Hsieh began to use the full artillery of her unconventional game.
The world No 88 cut a disguised backhand cross court winner to restore parity for 3-3 and then held, courtesy of a seemingly nonchalant drive volley.
The Chinese Taipei No 1 capitalised on Kerber’s striking up the middle and had the 2016 champion scurrying from corner to corner in exhausting rally after rally.
Kerber dismissed a set point with a backhand rocketed down the line, but moments later a cruel net cord dropped over the net for Hsieh to steal the opener.
The Taiwanese dominated the baseline exchanges for almost two full sets with jaw-dropping mastery of the full spectrum of power levels.
She ripped the ball, and then feathered drop shots that defied gravity as they appeared to go slowly, almost magically crawling over the net.
She frustrated Kerber with deft touch, side-to-side aggression, and a strong belief that she could upset the the 21st seed.
Then, out of the blue, Kerber went from imploding to winning 8 straight points, and the match changed in the blink of an eye.
With Hsieh serving at 5-5 in the second set, she threw in a super slow lob for no apparent reason, then followed it up with some zippy two-handed forehands to blow Kerber’s mind.
The German banged her racket on the ground, screamed at her coaches’ box, and generally lost her cool.
Hsieh crushed a second successive forehand winner on the next point, and Kerber was just 6 points from losing the match.
Hsieh moved to 40-15 after Kerber hit a backhand down the line into the middle of the net.
Suddenly, Kerber won 8 straight points and the second set, dramatically changing the course of the match.
Hsieh stopped dictating and her belief fell away as Kerber orchestrated her great escape, battling her own mental demons as much as the talented opponent on the other side of the net.
“I was everywhere today, inside and outside of the court, she made me run everywhere,” said Kerber. “She played a lot of shots into the corners, made a lot of drop shots, so I was trying to simply bring it back.
“I think that was the key at the end that I really could run forever, and I was feeling that I was running from the first point until the last point. A lot of metres, actually.
“I think she played amazing match and it’s always tricky to play against her. I’m really happy about how I was able to change the match and turn around and playing, then, good tennis again in important moments, especially in the third set.”
The Taiwanese Hsieh blasted 42 winners, pulling off creative shots that would have stumped anyone on court on Monday.
She calls it Su-Wei style: “I don’t have a plan. Actually, my boyfriend was looking her game earlier this morning,” said Hsieh, who plays double-handed on both sides.
“I forgot to ask him what she play, so, I actually have no plan to go on the court. So I was try to still going my Su-Wei style, you know.
“I call like to play freestyle. Like today I go on the court. If I don’t have a plan, then I do whatever I can. When the ball come, I decide at the last moment where to hit, so sometime the girls say, oh, I don’t know where she hit. But sometimes I don’t know where I hit, too,” she added with a smile.
Kerber is currently riding a 13 match winning streak after suffering a breakdown in form last season, slipping from No 1 to No 22 in the world in 2017.
A new and improved Kerber has appeared this season and she is happy to put 2017 behind her.
“My expectations are always now to play every single match my best. I am not looking too much ahead,” she said.
Kerber may not be piling the expectations on herself but she knows what to expect from her quarter-final opponent, Keys, who eased past eighth-seeded Caroline Garcia on Monday, 6-3 6-2, in 68 minutes.
Keys, a runner-up at the US Open last September, has been in brutal form this fortnight and will bring her power game to Kerber.
“I think she’s always tough to play. She obviously is a great tennis player. She’s been No 1 in the world and won Slams,” Keys said of Kerber, who leads their head-to-head 6-1.
“I think she has an ability to cover the court and anticipate like really no one else does, so for me it’s having to play aggressive but also consistently aggressive, because I know she’s going to make three more balls than other girls may be able to get to.
“So it’s not feeling rushed and that I have to go for something crazy big on the first one and just really work the point.”
The 22-year old Keys missed last year’s AO because of left wrist surgery.
“I think the biggest thing for me is I’m just really enjoying myself out on the court, and I obviously missed a lot of tennis last year and wasn’t playing well at the beginning of the year,” Keys said after dispatching the eighth seed.
Against Garcia, she hit 32 winners, including 9 aces, in just 68 minutes.
“I feel like I’m playing just solid, consistent tennis. I think today was a good example of that. I think I served well. I think I returned well,” Keys said after the sixth top-five win of her career.
“I wasn’t going for unbelievable shots and things like that. I just was waiting for the right ball. Then trusting that I was going to make the right decision when I finally had the opportunity to go for it.’’
Later in the day, Halep took a step closer to her elusive maiden Grand Slam title by taking out the American-born Japanese and heavy-hitting Osaka, who had already upset seeded players Ash Barty and Elena Vesnina.
The top seed put in another assured display to win, 6-3 6-2, matching her best run at Melbourne Park and setting up a quarter-final meeting with either Karolina Pliskova or Barbora Strycova, due to play the last match of the evening session on Monday.
The match was closer than the scoreline suggested and, for the first five games, the two women probed and tested one another from the baseline, with each holding serve.
The intensity of the contest cranked up in game six when facing game point, Osaka smacked two winners to bring up a break point, one of three she held in the game, before missing a forehand into the tape.
The game extended for five deuces before Halep eventually held for 3-3.
It was a pivotal moment because the Romanian then went on to win 7 of the next 8 games, defending brilliantly and consistently placing the ball deep to prevent Osaka from controlling the points with her blistering ground-stokes.
Halep counterpunched with aggression, picking the right moments to attack and jerking the Japanese around with changes of direction and wrong-footing shots.
Her willingness to move forward and swipe swinging volleys was impressive and she finished the match winning 8 of her 9 trips to net.
Osaka, 20, playing for the first time in the last 16 at a Grand Slam tournament, did her best to disrupt Halep’s rhythm, departing with convention and throwing up a high ball in the seventh game.
Halep, however, fleet of foot, danced around her backhand and played a forehand, on the rise, up the line for a winner and a 5-2 lead.
The winners continued to flow and Halep, playing a backhand up the line for deuce, forced an error from Osaka with a deep return to reach match point, after which an inside-out forehand return winner sealed her victory.
The World No 1 is growing in stature with every match, proving her questionable mental strength and fighting qualities are things of the past and she is now firmly under control on her quest for the title.