Battle thoughts: Serena Williams v Simona Halep
Battle thoughts: Serena Williams v Simona Halep
Is Australian Open 2019 shaping as perhaps one of the strongest women's Grand Slam tournaments in memory?
Statistics emerging from this year's tournament so some way to supporting that, and have bucked the trend of “chaos” that has often afflicted the tour in recent years.
After the first round was completed, only five seeds failed to advance to the second round.
“Two of them weren't even upsets,” tweeted Portuegese reporter Jose Morgado, referring to Maria Sakkari’s defeat of Jelena Ostapenko and Venus Williams beating Mihaela Buzarnescu. “Can't remember a women's slam round one as calm as this one.”
By the time the second round was completed, all eight seeds had sealed a spot in the last 32 – the first time that had happened at a Grand Slam since Wimbledon in 2009.
Now people were really sitting up and taking notice. For what happens when the high seeds and big names continue to advance through the draw?
They eventually run into each other.
The third round was dense with blockbuster clashes and fabulous match-ups, some arguably worthy of a Grand Slam final. Defending champion Caroline Wozniacki faced five-time major winner Maria Sharapova. World No.1 Simona Halep took on the legendary Venus Williams. Grand Slam champions Petra Kvitova and Garbine Muguruza faced former top-10 players Belinda Bencic and Timea Bacsinszky. There was Serena Williams’ battle with fast-rising teenager Dayana Yastremska.
In many cases, it didn’t matter who won. For more good match-ups were guaranteed.
After Serena thumped Yastremska, her next match against either Venus or Halep was always going to be a fourth-round show-stopper. After Ash Barty beat Maria Sakkari to advance to the last 16, her match against either Wozniacki or Sharapova was always going to be a top billing at Rod Laver Arena.
The Barty-Sharapova match delivered entertainment and drama in spades. And it could very well be the same when Serena and Simona go head-to-head tonight.
"Obviously you have the star power, but also the way the draw has broken out ... at this point in the draw, its not even like you have a quarter of death, or a weak quarter,” observed Courtney Hguyen, senior writer for WTA Insider. “You're really like: I just wanna see how it all pans out, and I'm looking forward to seeing those specific players go at it.
“And I think that's what sets this tournament apart from other ones, where maybe statistically the seeds have made it through, but sometimes the match-ups didn't get good until later round.”
Tennis Twitter, in particular, came alive as the women’s draw continued to take shape. Elina Svitolina v Madison Keys. Karolina Pliskova v Muguruza, Kvitova v teen star Amanda Anisimova. Naomi Osaka v Anastasija Sevastova.
And that explosion of enthusiasm no doubt occurred because fans have been clamouring for years to see a women’s Grand Slam tournament this ripe with quality match-ups.
For years, the WTA tour has been loaded with undeniable talent. The only ingredient missing was consistency from those talented players. Rarely did they all win at the same time, like they have at Melbourne Park this year. As recently as sixth months ago, Wimbledon was rocked by the loss of all top-10 women’s seeds before the quarterfinals.
However, that was perhaps a slightly anomalous fortnight. For the past one or two seasons, a group of players have emerged, whom Nguyen likens to a cycling peloton, who have taken their place at the top of the sport. Despite not one of them being consistently dominant, they are collectively scooping the biggest prizes in the game and have contributed to a renewed sense of stability in the women’s game.
"Even in the off season I noticed a change in tenor when people reflected on the 2018 season; this tone of 'it's not chaos'. Or chaos was no longer a negative. It was competitive chaos. Competition should be chaotic,” Nguyen observed.
“That this has carried over into this Australian Open has pretty much borne that out. Yes, anything can happen on the WTA tour, we accept that; Danielle Collins just whitewashed Angelique Kerber, and no-one saw that coming.
“But we also know that (there is) a pack of 10, 15, 20 players that we consider, as WTA fans, separate and apart from anyone else. They might lose here and there, but they're the cream of the crop. Rankings don't matter; we just consider these players to be the best.
“Those are the players who have come through at this tournament.”
Indeed, rankings are not completely indicative of the strength of the players advancing to the second week at Melbourne Park.
Outside the top 10 are players like Serena, Muguruza and Sharapova, all multiple major champions. Keys, the 17th seed, is one of the game’s strongest performers at the majors and has been in the top 10. Barty, seeded No.15, is perhaps one of the more in-form players in the game right now, having won 17 of her past 21 matches.
Veteran tennis reporter Joel Drucker, writing this fortnight for tennis.com, marvelled the quality of the matches on offer in the women’s draw in the last 16.
"This is great. We had this period of eight (different) Slam winners in the past eight Slams. So something's gotta give, right? All these players (left) have accomplished things,” he said.
Drucker goes down list, pointing out that Halep, Serena, Muguruza and Pliskova – the four names through to the fourth round in a stellar top quarter – have all been ranked No.1 in the world. "It is pretty amazing,” he said.
"I think it's great that the WTA has all these players in ascent. I think it's great to see players like Osaka, who's a supernova. When these players win, and can win consistently, I think that's the WTA hope.”
Nguyen also noted that same quality, and the ascendant nature of this year’s women’s tournament.
"Everyone has booked their spots playing exemplary tennis. This isn't a situation where people are scrapping their way through the draw,” she said. “Halep's win over Venus was amazing. Her win over (Kaia) Kanepi was amazing. Serena looks fantastic. Ash, taking care of business like it’s no big deal. Pliskova doing things. Garbine playing one of the best matches of her last two years (against Konta), and then backed it up.
"There's a lot to be excited about, because then you get to the point where now we're gonna see (a quarterfinal pitting) peak Petra against peak Ash.
"I do feel like now is the time where the WTA and the women's tour and these players in particular, they have a tremendous opportunity to set the tone for the year.”