If someone were to ask you what is so remarkable about this gloriously uncertain era of women’s tennis, show them the seventh day of the Australian Open 2021.
The four fourth-round matches on the first Sunday of the Australian Open, which decided the quarter-final line-up in the bottom half of the draw, were each a showcase of the brilliantly competitive and unpredictable depth of the WTA tour.
Here’s a brief recap:
- The 35-year-old Hsieh Su-wei became the oldest player to reach a first Grand Slam singles quarter-final in the Open Era.
- 2019 champion Naomi Osaka saved match points to fight back and beat 2020 finalist Garbine Muguruza.
- Serena Williams survived a power-packed onslaught from the big-hitting Aryna Sabalenka in a three-set thriller that could have gone either way till the end.
- World No 2 Simona Halep ended the Grand Slam unbeaten streak of Iga Swiatek in a battle of French Open champions
The women left standing at the end of the day were:
A doubles No 1 from Taipei who plays tennis in her own eccentric style and is the least decorated player left in her side of the draw.
A 23-year-old, three-time Grand Slam champion who has publicly lived through the rollercoaster of extreme success and failure in the span of two years.
A 23-time Grand Slam champion who is playing a sport she loves despite multiple physical and mental setbacks at 39.
A former world No 1 who has been the most consistent top-10 player in the last decade but is still very much a dark horse at a Major.
What a mix!
Osaka new weapon – a quiet steel
On a cursory glance, this list seems par for course given recent Slam history. There’s almost always a first-timer, a veteran, a former world No 1 / Major winner and Serena Williams in the last eight of the women’s draw. But a closer look at the opponents, scorelines and match play will reveal just what a fascinating, vital day of tennis it was.
As we saw in her on and off court heroics at the US Open, Naomi Osaka has newly polished quiet steel in her manner, a lethal weapon in her arsenal of terrific tennis shots. She has learned to control her reactions to pressure and panic so admirably, she just never looks out of the match.
This is a far cry from the Osaka who was crushed by 15-year-old Coco Gauff as defending champion at last year’s Australian Open. This time she kept fighting fiercely against the blitz attack of Muguruza, even when her errors made her fling a racquet: usually a sure sign of a slide.
The third seed was on the verge of elimination at 3-5, 15-40 before rattling off four points in a row. Already, she had fought from a set and a break down to force a decider and in a tense third set, had failed to convert a break point in the fourth game before dropping serve which made throw her racquet in frustration.
But she regrouped and twice broke the serve of two-time Grand Slam winner Muguruza to prevail 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 in one hour and 55 minutes. How much did she raise her level? Enough to win 10 of the final 12 points and remind us of the classic 2019 final against Petra Kvitova.
By no means did the Spaniard play a bad match, she was just outdone by a player who found an extra gear despite being at the end of the road. The 23-year-old’s reaction – a shy smile after clinching the match – showed just how determined she is.
Serena and the strength of experience
At the other end of the spectrum was Serena Williams, whose reaction suggested even she had no idea how she managed to turn it around.
Playing for the first time against each other, Williams and Sabalenka are both huge hitters of the ball and seemed like an evenly matched pair in 2021. The Belarusian has been on a hot streak lately but that edge was countered by Serena’s experience at this level. Sabalenka, who was born four months after Williams made her Grand Slam debut in 1998, has spoken about modelling her big-hitting game on the American.
They were on level footing for most of the first set before the counter-attacking American took it with a break in the 10th game. But then Williams just lost the grip on her serve and the 22-year-old pounced on it with scorching winners to force a decider.
With Williams faltering first serve, which she landed just 36% of the time in the second set, and a confident Sabalenka, it looked an upset brewing. The 39-year-old raced to a 4-1 lead and Sabalenka looked increasingly frustrated. But she won three straight games to put things back on level terms and just when it looked like Williams would have to do something special, the youngster’s inexperience showed as she couldn’t serve to stay in the match.
Once again, a tough match Serena Williams won with her racquet and reputation.
A vintage Halep show
Her next opponent, though, has a reputation of her own: outplaying anyone by counter-punching till the very end. The last time Williams and Halep met was the Wimbledon 2019 final when the Romanian crushed the veteran. But the last match does not count, as Halep showed in her solid win over French Open champion Swiatek. A veteran beating a rising star in three is not necessarily unusual but such has been the Pole’s rise lately that there was nothing usual about this match.
The last time Halep and Swiatek met, the unseeded teenager had decimated the red-hot title favourite at Roland Garros with the loss of just three games. Their clash on the hard-courts of Melbourne was a lot more evenly matched till squandering break points lead to one loose service game as the Pole grabbed a 21st consecutive set in a Grand Slam.
But Halep hasn’t had the longest active run in the top-10 for nothing (seven straight years). She was already aggressive to begin with and then lifted her intensity to force Swiatek into errors with her deep and precise hitting. She built the pressure with a clean game and fought for points, even when the 19-year-old put the decider back on serve, it was the youngster who cracked this time. Consider this: Swiatek had 33 winners to Halep’s 19 but she made 42 unforced errors to her opponent’s 17.
The way the world No 2 problem solved and adjusted to fight back from a set down, days after an even more tight slugfest against Ajla Tomljanovic where she won the last five games, was a reminder of why Halep is a contender at virtually every Major she plays, even if she has just the two titles and more often than not is forced to a third set.
Su-wie makes history
To wrap it all, there was the surprise run of Su-wei. There have been several first-time Major quarter-finalists in the last few years but none of them were 35.
Beating a returning Bianca Andreescu and US Open quarter-finalist Tsvetana Pironkova and not ‘eating a bagel’ against Sara Errani, Su-wei was up against Marketa Vondrousova, a player 14 years her junior who has already played a Grand Slam final. But riding on a wave of confidence and her deft touch, she got through in the only straight-sets match of the day.
The world No 1 in doubles is ranked 71 in singles, but her canny craft is the same on both courts. She plays a trick version of tennis, redirecting pace and angles so wickedly that she can trouble the best. Her vibrant off-court persona adds to the charm, making the Taipei player one of the most entertaining ones as her quotes this Australian Open have shown. The clash of styles when she meets Osaka in an all-Asian quarter-final will be one to savour, no matter the result. The record of making a Grand Slam breakthrough at 35, although she insists she is 18 mentally, will make it even more special… just like the day of tennis we have had and the match-ups it has set.
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