The fans had settled in at the Road Laver Arena for the first match of Monday’s evening session; the players were done with their warm-up. It was time for introductions.
The announcer booked through the microphone, “Please welcome on court, the world No 1….”
And Serena Williams walked out, wearing a black trench coat, headphones in place, her red tennis bag slung over her shoulders, zoned in for the fight. After a couple of steps onto the court, Williams realised her faux pas and rushed back into the players’ tunnel.
Then, Simona Halep, the actual World No 1, walked out grinning. The good-humoured Halep had been the first to suggest that even though she held the top ranking currently, Williams, the 23-time Grand Slam champion was the best player in the world.
In their nine previous meetings, Halep had won only one. Williams had been doing a damn good impression of her pre-pregnancy dominant self. Coming into the fourth round, the 37-year-old American had lost only nine games and no sets.
Williams shrugged off the misstep in the tunnel, a time violation for starting the match late and a break of serve at love on her very first game to run through the first set 6-1. The American, who is chasing Margaret Court’s record of 24 singles major titles, slammed ten winners and conceded only nine points to a stunned Halep in last six games of the set. Having cut the 5’6 Romanian down to size – Halep didn’t win a single point on her second serve - she served an ace to seal the set.
“I felt like I had been hit by the train in the first set,” Halep said later. “Everything was too fast. So after the first set, I got fire inside myself, and I said that now I start the match.”
In the second set, she really did sink her teeth into the contest to justify the hype that had surrounded it. The Romanian had taken the hard road to the last 16, having to navigate tough three-set matches against Kaia Kanepi and Sofia Kenin in the first two matches of the tournament. She had an easier outing against Williams’ older sister, Venus, in the third and her reward had been a blockbuster clash against the seven-time Australian Open champion.
Though Williams’ power had overwhelmed her in the opening set, Halep found her feet and started retrieving with a lot more purpose. She moved Williams out of her comfort zone and made her play shots on the run. Halep recovered from 1-2 down in the second set, to break the Williams serve in the fourth and tenth games and level the match. The Romanian had hit the right balance between attack and defence, giving Williams no room to hit out of trouble.
“Well, I mean, that's why she's No. 1,” Williams said. “She literally lifted her game to a new level. I didn't. I kind of stayed at the same level, and I should have looked at my game, as well. But it's a part of this journey on my way back. You know, like I was saying, it's 10 months. I'm still learning.”
Though this was Williams’ 50th Grand Slam tournament, it has been less than a year that she returned on the tour. Williams last major came at the 2017 Australian Open when she was eight weeks pregnant and she gave birth to a daughter that September. She has been cautious on her journey back, but as if by habit, has elevated her game at the majors. ‘Supermom’ Williams made the finals of Wimbledon and US Open, but the record-equalling 24th title eluded her.
She stayed on course for it by beating Halep 6-1, 4-6, 6-4 on Monday, but the Romanian tested her thoroughly in the second and third sets.
Maybe because she has to work so hard and earn every point, Halep has the innate ability to focus on each point and play it with the same intensity. She turned every point into a mini-battle, making it difficult for Williams to break the shackles. Unchallenged so far this tournament, Williams tied her long curly hair into a bun and got to business against Halep after the second set.
The match reached a crescendo in the sixth game of the decider, with Serena serving. Halep took on the best serve in the history of the women’s game, starting points with strong returns to engage Williams in long physical rallies. For her effort, Halep won three break points in the game that went to five deuce points. Williams saved the first at 30-40 with a 171kph ace down the T. A rare mishit by Halep saw her send a forehand long on the second, and another strong serve on the third break point had Halep return it meekly into the net.
Sensing that survived the storm, Williams moved in to attack on the very next game. She broke Halep’s serve to go up 4-3. The Romanian kept battling till the end, making Williams survive a 20-shot rally just for 15-15 when she served for the match at 5-3. It took a brilliant backhand winner from Williams to set up match point, and sealed it when Halep sent a forehand long.
Halep finished with only 12 unforced errors in the game, to Williams’ 31. But the American’s ability to summon power was always going to be the deciding factor – she had 44 winners to Halep’s 24 – and so it proved to be.
“I think overall I'm hanging in there,” Williams said. “I'm solid. I can definitely go to a new level. I have to if I want to stay in the tournament.” She next plays Czech Republic’s Karolina Pliskova, who has the big game that can trouble the big names. And they, clearly still, don’t get any bigger than Serena Williams, world No 1 or not.
Updated Date: Jan 22, 2019 11:02:59 IST