Serena Williams took Simona Halep out of contention at the Australian Open, 6-3 6-3, in a highly-anticipated re-match of the 2019 Wimbledon final on Tuesday night at Rod Laver Arena, setting up a block-buster semi-final against Naomi Osaka.
I feel like I needed to have a good performance today, especially after my last match against her. So it was really important to try to play well today... I knew I couldn't play worse [than last time]. So that was a good thing. Serena Williams
While Williams is trying not to think about equalling Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles, punters believe this is her best chance yet as the American is in dazzling form at the age of 39.
Halep prevailed at Wimbledon to win her second Grand Slam title, 6-2 6-2, in a flawless performance that stunned watchers, registering just 3 unforced errors, the fewest in a Wimbledon final since records started being kept in 1998.
This time, however, Williams slammed 24 winners over the course of an hour and 21 minutes, which put her into her 40th Grand Slam semi-final and the history books with a record 9th in Melbourne in the Open Era, joint with Martina Navratilova.
“I definitely think this is the best match I’ve played this tournament for sure,” said Williams. “Obviously I had to, going up against the No 2 in the world.
“I knew I had to do better and that’s what I did. I’ve been watching her and I’m sure she’s been watching me.
“I feel like this is such a good opportunity for me just to keep doing my best.
“It’s the first Grand Slam of the year for me. I had an incredibly long, arduous off-season. And so, I’m honestly happy with every win I get.”
Seeded 10th in Melbourne, the former World No 1 last made the quarters at AO17 on her way to lifting her most recent major trophy while 8 weeks pregnant with daughter Olympia.
“I feel like I needed to have a good performance today, especially after my last match against her,” said Williams. “So it was really important to try to play well today… I knew I couldn’t play worse [than last time]. So that was a good thing.”
Halep has had her problems here this year, and trailed Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic 5-2 in a third set in the second round, but she kicked on then to defeat her fellow French Open champion, Iga Swiatek, in the 4th round.
Williams also overcame a tough 4th-round foe in 3 sets in Aryna Sabalenka, who had won 18 of her previous 19 encounters.
Despite the reverse at Wimbledon, Williams led the head-to-head over Halep 9-2, of which 7-1 were on a hard court.
On this occasion, the American’s quality was at times extraordinary as the 39-year old was quick to crack the ball down the line and was able to conjure the sharpest of angles for winners.
Her commitment to first-strike tennis was lethal, and she used it well to win the key points with equally astonishing defence, breaking Halep in the very first game of the match..
The Romanian immediately broke back, but Williams would not be denied, crushing second-serve returns at will and changing direction by going down the lines.
Halep, whose 3rd unforced error of the day came to end the 4th game, struck a costly double-fault on game point at 2-3 into the net.
Williams won 87 per cent of her first-serve points in the first and hit 14 winners, with only 13 unforced errors.
Halep, though, hung on in a 3-deuce game to start the second set as Williams’ errors elevated, the American suddenly coughing up 9 in the first 2 games.
The World No 2 led 2-0 and 3 more breaks followed until Williams held for 3-3 when a monumental 7th game saw Halep squander 5 break points while the American outlasted her on a 20-shot rally to bring up a 6th chance.
This was duly converted after another scrambling, hustling rally from Williams, who then accelerated over the finish line by reeling off 8 of the last 10 points, leaving Halep to kick herself over her lost opportunities.
“Movement has always been one of my strengths, and so it’s actually more natural for me to move than for me not,” Williams said.
“So it was just kind of like, Oh, that’s how I used to move. I’m happy that I’m doing that again and that I put it back into my game.
“I think I was more focused on other things and not focused on something that is actually a strength of mine, has always been a strength of mine, and I had to refocus on that.”
From the high of the first set, Williams’ first-serve points won only marginally dropped in the second and ended at a healthy 77 per cent, compared to Halep’s 52, while both won under 40 per cent behind their second serves.
Williams finished with 24 winners to Halep’s 9 and, unlike at Wimbledon, the Romanian’s error count spiked, to 19.
Entered the tournament as the World No 11, Williams is assured of bouncing back to World No 7 next Monday, and could climb as high as World No 4 if she wins the title.
Her next hurdle will be another multiple Grand Slam champion, No 3 seed Naomi Osaka, whom she defeated, 6-2 2-6 [10-7], last month in the Adelaide exhibition, A Day At The Drive.
“I have an incredible opponent to play, so it would be nice to hopefully keep raising the level of my game,” added Williams. “I’m going to have to.. I feel like she does everything well.
“She has a good serve, she has a great return, she’s strong on both sides.”
Williams and Osaka played that unforgettable US Open final in 2018, won by the Japanese, but the tables were turned in Toronto a year later.
As for Halep, she felt she was ‘not that far’ away, but admitted the veteran American was ‘stronger in the important moments’.
“She was very powerful at the return. So, yeah, those long rallies were very important. But I’m not that disappointed with myself,” said the two-time Grand Slam winner. “My attitude maybe a little bit negative the whole tournament, but I’m going to work on this, and I will come back stronger with that.”
Throughout the opening Grand Slam of the year the usually ice-cool Halep has let her frustrations bubble to the surface, admitting she had been ‘complaining a little bit too much’.
“But tennis-way, I think I did a good job,” said the ultra-consistent 29-year-old, who is currently in her 349th consecutive week inside the top 10.
“I worked hard in the off-season and here I could see how much I improved in some things. So I’m positive on that, on tennis, and I have confidence.
“But I still have to work to get back in the good shape mentally.”
Elsewhere, Aryna Sabalenka & Elise Mertens led 3 of the top 4 seeded teams into the AO Doubles semi-finals on Tuesday, and new Australian Open champions are guaranteed.
The No 2 seeds, Sabalenka & Mertens, who won the 2019 US Open title, unceremoniously halted the 11-match winning streak of No 7 seeds Shuko Aoyama & Ena Shibahara, 6-2 6-0, in only 53 minutes.
The Belarusian-Belgian duo faced, and saved, just one break point in the whole match.
They will next face No 4 seeds Demi Schuurs & Nicole Melichar, who dominated the unseeded teenagers Coco Gauff & Caty McNally after a slow start.
Schuurs & Melichar fell behind 1-4 in the first set before coming back for a 7-6(4) 6-1 victory.
The top half quarter-finals proved to be tighter affairs, with the No.3 seeds, Barbora Krejcikova & Katerina Siniakova, the 2018 champions at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon, edged Sharon Fichman & Giuliana Olmos, 7-5 5-7 6-2, in 2 hours and 24 minutes.
The Czech team will bid for their first Grand Slam hardcourt final against the only unseeded partnership in the last four, Nina Stojanovic & Darija Jurak.
Having shocked No 1 seeds Hsieh Su-Wei & Barbora Strycova in the second round, the Serbian-Croatian pair continued to back up the upset, defeating Aleksandra Krunic & Martina Trevisan, 6-7(3) 6-3 6-2 to reach their first semi-final together.