Under siege at the hands of Iga Swiatek, Simona Halep adjusted, then thrived, wresting control of her clash with the Polish star to move into the Australian Open quarterfinals.
Halep’s 3-6 6-1 6-4 win sends her through to the last eight at Melbourne Park for the fifth time, where she will meet Serena Williams.
The victory avenged Halep’s loss at Roland Garros last year to the 19-year-old Swiatek, who went on to win that event to become the sport’s newest Grand Slam champion.
And Swiatek played at a similar level in the first set on Sunday night at Rod Laver Arena, clocking forehands with significantly more pace and spin than the Romanian – especially the one she struck for a cross-court winner to hold at love in the fifth game and take a 3-2 lead.
Although Halep held in the following game, she was struggling to live with the 15th seed from the baseline.
And she was rattled by that; two games later, she committed four straight unforced errors – the last two being uncharacteristically wild misses over the baseline – to get broken at love.
Swiatek served out the first set. But from here, the match dramatically swung.
"I knew that's she gonna hit very strong and her topspin on the forehand is really tough to return,” Halep said.
“But after the first set I said that I have to change something, and I think I just did a step back, and I was trying to roll the ball more and to make her run, because from close body, she hits really strong.
"I was hitting too strong and too flat. I think I moved her a little bit better, and that's why she started to miss a little bit more.
“And then probably she lost the rhythm, and I got in the game."
This was astute analysis from the world No.2, because that was exactly what happened.
Halep dug into the rallies and ceaselessly forced Swiatek to play one more ball, playing with controlled aggression of her own and trimming her unforced error count from 10 in the opening set to just three in the second.
Swiatek, who made 11 unforced errors in the first set, finished the match with a whopping 40 – including 19 in the final set alone.
After winning just one game in the second stanza, Swiatek’s frustration was increasingly visible as the match entered the final set and her back-court game deserted her.
She dropped serve in the very first game on a double fault.
In the third game, she tried mixing things up and rushing forward, but did so on the wrong shot; Halep calmly slotted a passing shot down the line.
Swiatek looked completely out of ideas, but fought admirably, briefly rediscovered her feel on the forehand wing, and smacked back-to-back winners to break Halep and level scores at 2-2.
Yet four straight unforced errors brought her undone in the very next game.
It was a deficit she would not recover from, although she did force Halep to serve for the match after taking three balls out of the air for winners to hold serve in the penultimate game.
Halep served out the match without dropping a point, setting up a meeting with the “legend”.
“She's the best,” Halep smiled when told she would meet Williams in the quarterfinals.
"I have experience, I have so many matches against her. After tomorrow, I will just try to enjoy myself on court and try my best, because you only can beat Serena if you play your best."
The last time they met, Halep indeed played her best, routing the 23-time major champion 6-2 6-2 in just 56 minutes to win the Wimbledon final of 2019.