Simona Halep successfully navigated the unknown, outclassing 32nd seed Veronika Kudermetova 6-1 6-3 in 1 hour and 18 minutes on Rod Laver Arena on Friday night to earn a coveted place in the Australian Open 2021 fourth round.
There, she will meet reigning Roland Garros champion Iga Swiatek, who impressed in a 6-4 6-3 win over Frenchwoman Fiona Ferro later in the evening.
Swiatek overwhelmed Halep 6-1 6-2 in the fourth round in Paris four months ago en route to her first major title, a year after Halep had thumped the Polish teenager 6-1 6-0 at the same stage of the same tournament.
"I just hope we're gonna play a great match. I hope it's gonna be a bit longer than the last two matches that we played against each other," smiled Swiatek, the 15th seed.
"I'm really happy, and it's always a great pleasure to play against her, so I'm looking forward to it."
Second seed Halep hadn’t previously clashed against Kudermetova, one of the rising stars of women’s tennis, who’s ranked at a career-high of 36 after scoring wins over top 10 players including Elina Svitolina and Karolina Pliskova in the past six months.
“It’s always tough to play for [the] first time with somebody,” said Halep.
“I knew that she’s hitting very strong and flat, so I had to be very strong on my legs as well and I think the serve helped me a lot today,” said the Romanian, who landed 73 per cent of her first serves compared to her opponent’s 42 per cent.
Halep – whose average first serve, at 157kmh, was outpaced by Kudermetova’s at 171kmh – said she’d worked hard in the off-season to strengthen every element of her game, including her serve.
Kudermetova, 23, who hadn’t notched a main draw win in Melbourne until this year, wasn’t initially overawed by the occasion, producing a pair of crisp forehand winners on serve to start proceedings. But burdened by a shaky first serve, the Russian found herself down 0-40 in her next service game and Halep guided a backhand winner down the line to convert her first break point.
Kudermetova immediately created two break chances of her own but 29 year-old Halep fended off both, holding serve in a game that featured three of her four total aces. The second seed consolidated another break, racing to a 5-1 lead. Though the Russian was able to save two set points with nearly identical backhand winners down the line, a wide forehand handed her Halep the first set in 30 minutes.
Kudermetova regrouped as the duo exchanged breaks to start the second, and saved break points to hold for the first time since the opening game. Striking groundstrokes with increasing self-belief, the upstart broke to love to take a 3-2 lead, only to hand back the advantage in the next game in which Halep ended a 22-stroke rally with an approach forehand winner that brought appreciative whistles from the crowd.
Kudermetova saved three break points in the eighth game, before donating a fourth to her rival with a forehand that found the net. Serving at 5-3, a delighted Halep sealed victory on her third match point as a backhand from the Russian sailed wide.
Halep, an AO2018 finalist, knows what to expect in her next match after her shock defeat to Swiatek at Roland Garros.
“It’s a big challenge because she crushed me,” laughed Halep, who may well be back on Rod Laver Arena on Sunday.
“The court is much faster than last year actually - it’s not easy for me because I have to be fast and also to block sometimes the power from the opponent but I enjoy [it].”
Swiatek seemed to enjoy the fast court against Ferro, belting 20 winners to seven in a contest lasting less than 90 minutes.
While it was her heavy forehand doing the damage on Parisian clay, on Friday night it was her backhand that was the most potent, producing more winners than from the other wing.
And it was one of those backhand winners which saw her break for 2-0 in the second set, an advantage she would not relinquish.
Swiatek, who also reached the fourth round at Australian Open 2020, has won 11 of her last 12 matches and is bidding for a place in her first AO quarterfinal.
She has not dropped a set so far this week at Melbourne Park.