MELBOURNE — The Serena Williams who showed up on court to play the world No. 1 Simona Halep looked very much the 23-time Grand Slam champion that she is on Monday night.
For those who wondered if Williams would ever return to her top form after becoming a mom, the question has now been answered at this Australian Open.
Williams, exactly a decade and a day older than the 27-year-old Halep, was required to work her way to a 6-1, 4-6, 6-4 fourth-round win in 1 hour, 47 minutes. Williams now holds a 9-1 record over the Romanian.
“It was a really intense match and some incredible tennis,” Williams said. “It’s really great to be out here on this court.”
By the end of the match, Williams was fist pumping every great shot she made. And then there was the familiar two hands straight in the air victory pose that indicated she was moving onto the quarterfinals, where she’ll play Karolina Pliskova.
It’s beginning to look clearer by the day that Williams is picking up where she left off the last time she was at the Australian Open. It was 2017 and she would win her 23rd Grand Slam trophy, an achievement that became more noteworthy when she revealed a couple of months later she won the title while pregnant with daughter, Alexis Olympia.
Williams took more of the risk on court Monday, scoring 44 winners to 24 for Halep. She also posted far more errors, as in 31 to 12. In the end, Halep was successful in breaking Williams’ serve on three of seven offerings, while Williams was successful on five of 10 break point chances.
“I really needed to elevate my game because she’s the No. 1 player in the world and there’s a reason why,” WIlliams told the crowd. “I’m such a fighter and I never give up. It’s definitely something that is innate. This is my job — to come out and play in front of you guys.”
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This was the first time that Williams played against Halep when the latter is ranked No. 1. It’s the second time Halep is playing Williams when the American wasn’t top-ranked, with the other occasion coming when Williams was ranked No. 25 at 2011 Wimbledon.
The beginning of the match was awkward as Williams, set to serve first, received a time violation warning as she was leaving her bench area to walk to the service line. She ignored the call, but played a nervous game to lose her serve at love with the final point a double fault.
Halep couldn’t capitalize on the advantage and surrendered her serve in the next game. From that juncture it was all about Williams, who closed out the first set in 20 minutes.
“I will start with a joke,” said Halep, smiling. “I felt like I had been hit by the train in the first set. Everything was too fast.
“I didn’t get scared about the first set because I knew I have a better level, and I can play better if I stay there and I really start moving better and hitting the ball stronger.”
That was the point when Halep, who was out of action after the US Open last year with a back injury, calmed her nerves and turned the match into a battle.
In the second set, Halep started to employ a better strategy to challenge Williams. She found more depth and range on her groundstrokes, moved Williams around the court more, and better absorbed the pace from Williams’ shots.
Into the third set decider, it was a compelling cat-and-mouse game with both players having opportunities to take control. It was Halep who blinked first, surrendering her serve in the seventh game when netting a forehand on the only break point of the game.
“Losing every time is not improving, but I felt like I was closer,” Halep said. “I played better.”
In 2018, Williams and Halep were the only two women to contest for the title at two Grand Slam finals.
Halep, who lost to Caroline Wozniacki in last year’s final here, won her first major at the French Open.
Williams, who was not in perfect playing condition having just returned from maternity leave in March, lost out on the Wimbledon final to Angelique Kerber and the US Open title to Naomi Osaka.