Serena Williams beat Simona Halep 6-3 6-3 in a highly-anticipated match-up that produced a flurry of gripping rallies to set up a blockbuster semifinal at Australian Open 2021 against Naomi Osaka.
Much of the chatter heading into the quarterfinal centered on the 2019 Wimbledon final. Which was understandable, and not only because it marked the pair’s last meeting and on a grand stage.
What actually happened is sure to linger. Halep orchestrated an outstanding performance to prevail 6-2 6-2 and win her second Grand Slam title.
Halep committed, incredibly, just three unforced errors, the fewest in a Wimbledon final since records started being kept in 1998. Flawless.
No wonder Williams said afterward, “She really played out of her mind.”
Williams’ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, admitted that Halep was bound to use the victory as a source of “confidence” before Tuesday’s contest.
“I think Simona played the perfect match in Wimbledon,” said Mouratoglou. “It's going to be a different process for her because she knows she can play like that against Serena, which she never did before.
“She will come probably with more confidence, and we're prepared for that.”
Halep’s co-coach, Adelaide native Darren Cahill, promised to provide his charge with video reminders of what happened that day on the grass.
“Some of the technical stuff is coming up,” said Cahill. “I think making your player remember something that was so special both about what she accomplished and the way she played is really important to try to replicate that.
“You can't rely on that to be exact, but you can certainly put your player in a good place to make your player remember what she did well on that particular day.”
Halep so nearly never got to the AO 2021 quarterfinals, trailing Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic 5-2 in a third set in the second round. Yet she has kicked on since then, defeating her fellow French Open champion, Iga Swiatek, in the fourth round.
Williams overcame a tough fourth-round foe in three sets, too, in Aryna Sabalenka, who had won 18 of her previous 19 encounters. The 39-year-old has mixed in her aggressive power game with sublime defence — when needed.
“Is she moving better than the last three years? Yes, for sure. No doubt about it,” said Mouratoglou.
Despite the reverse at Wimbledon, Williams led the head-to-head overall 9-2 and 7-1 on a hard court.
Story of the match
Williams’ movement once again shone at Rod Laver Arena in her first evening match of the tournament.
Not only defending but getting into position outside the tram lines and ripping cross-court replies, including a backhand that helped her break for 2-0 in the first.
Halep immediately broke back, but Williams wouldn’t be denied.
Her serve out wide on the deuce side flourished, she crushed second-serve returns and changed direction by going down the lines.
Halep struck a costly double fault on game point at 2-3 into the net, perhaps a result of Williams constantly applying pressure.
In case you were wondering, Halep’s third unforced error Tuesday came to end the fifth game.
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 three-deuce game to start the second set as Williams’ errors suddenly elevated. Nine in the first two games.
Halep led 2-0 and three more breaks followed until Williams held for 3-3.
Then came a monumental seventh game. Halep thwarted five break points but Williams outlasted her opponent on a 20-shot rally to bring up a sixth opportunity.
How Halep will be kicking herself.
Yes, there was more great scampering from Williams, but Halep’s backhand with the court exposed hit the net instead of landing for a winner, allowing Williams to stay in the rally. Then Halep sent a forehand into the net.
The next two games went quickly, with Williams wrapping things up with a blistering forehand winner.
“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."
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.
Both won under 40 per cent behind their second serves.
Williams finished with 24 winners to Halep’s nine and unlike at Wimbledon, the Romanian’s error count spiked, to 19, combined with nine winners.
Since the middle of 2010, Williams has only lost two Grand Slam quarterfinals; both, by the way, at the Australian Open.
What this means for Halep
Halep will have to wait to win her first Australian Open title, getting close in 2018 against Caroline Wozniacki in what was a thrilling final.
What’s next for Serena?
Bring it on …
Williams and Osaka played that unforgettable US Open final in 2018 won by the Japanese power baseliner, but the tables were turned in Toronto a year later.
Williams and Osaka, too, met recently at the Day at the Drive exhibition in Adelaide won by Serena in a match tiebreak.
"I’ve been watching her and I’m sure she’s been watching me," Serena said of Osaka.
“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.”