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Infosys | Officil digital innovation partner

Serena scrapes past Sabalenka in battle of power hitters

Serena Williams overcame Aryna Sabalenka in a ferocious fourth-round battle on Sunday at Rod Laver Arena to advance at Australian Open 2021.

In the first ever meeting between two of the game’s biggest hitters, Williams’ greater poise, versatility and consistency saw her emerge with a 6-4 2-6 6-4 victory.

Williams, in her ongoing quest for a 24th major singles title, will face either Simona Halep or Iga Swiatek for a place in the semifinals.

SCOREBOARD: S Williams d A Sabalenka

“I didn't want to be out of the tournament, so it felt good to kind of clutch that in the end and get through that,” she said. 

“I just felt like even games that I lost, I was so close to winning. Not all games, but probably most of those games. I just needed to play better on the big points. I knew that I could. I still hadn't reached my peak. I was like: 'Okay, Serena, you got this, just keep going'. 

“It was definitely a lot of power … but I'm used to it in practice. I know how to get them. I was okay with it really. 

“If she wants to play power, let's go.”

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14 Feb 21

HIGHLIGHTS: Serena resists Sabalenka

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Williams-Sabalenka was one of several must-see women’s matches on the Day 7 schedule. It was little surprise, given the 23-time Grand Slam champion, undefeated in 2021, was clashing with a player in Sabalenka who had won 18 of her past 19 matches.

In moments like these throughout her career, when facing an opponent who is surging, or dangerous, or against whom the match-up is deemed a blockbuster, Serena has come out firing.

Against Petra Kvitova in the Wimbledon 2012 quarterfinals, when the Czech was the defending champion and expected to trouble Williams with her weapons, a hyper-focused Serena refused her the time or space to use them, winning in straight sets. 

In her Australian Open 2017 quarterfinal against Johanna Konta, the Sydney International champion who’d demolished everyone in winning 18 consecutive sets in a nine-match winning streak, Williams allowed the Briton just five games in a Rod Laver Arena masterclass.

But since her comeback to the sport as a mother, Williams has found it harder to sustain this stellar level throughout an entire match.

After blitzing Simona Halep 6-1 in a 20-minute first-set, the Romanian was able to work her way back into their fourth-round contest at AO2019. And she steamrolled Victoria Azarenka by the same scoreline before the Belarusian rebounded to win their US Open 2020 semifinal in three sets.

What was it going to be on Sunday? As it turned out, some of both scenarios.

Sabalenka hit the cover off the ball but lost in three sets

Serena began the match moving brilliantly, striking cleanly and trading lusty blows with Sabalenka, who herself had clearly gotten up for this contest. 

Sabalenka did not lose a point in her first two service games, attaining speeds of over 192km/h on her first serve. And she bullied Serena with her powerful groundstrokes in the seventh game to earn to break points.

Serena did not cede ground, elevating her game to escape with a hold and shooting a glare down the court at her younger opponent.

And after winning an incredible rally with athletic defence to move ahead 0-30 in the 10th game, Williams broke an error-prone Sabalenka to take the first set.

But she could not sustain it - her intensity dipped just as Sabalenka became more patient. Given more time to play her shots and committing less unforced errors in the process, the Belarusian built leads of 3-0 and 5-1. 

Serena Williams takes a tumble in the second set

Williams’ first-serve percentage had dipped as low as 21 per cent early in the second set before improving slightly to 36 per cent, prompting Alicia Molik to observe in commentary that it was “an intense first set that I think took a lot out of her”.

But perhaps Serena had been saving herself up for a final push in the third, because the American held serve in the opening game with an athletic backhand volley winner.

She leapt out to a 4-1 lead as Sabalenka showed increasing frustration, but there was to be one more comeback from the world No.7, who dug out some impressive returns and cleaned up her game to level scores at 4-4.

Here, Williams’ experience and confidence shone through. She forced three errors from Sabalenka to hold for 5-4, and watched as her opponent unravelled in the final game.

Three consecutive errors – a chain beginning with a double fault – from Sabalenka saw Williams triumph after two hours and nine minutes of memorable tennis.

Now in the quarterfinals, Williams stands just three victories from that record-equalling major title, and eighth at Melbourne Park. 

Either Halep or Swiatek, both major champions themselves, will be the next assignment confronting the legendary American. 

“At this point I'm ready for either player. It's quarterfinal of a Grand Slam. I've been here more times than I could even count,” Williams said. 

“That's the right attitude for me to have.”