It was expected to be a famous, fiery clash. Simona Halep vs Venus Williams. The current World No 1 vs the former World No 1. The tireless defender vs the elegant aggressor. The third-round clash had a ‘final before the final’ feel to it before it started. But eventually it took Halep only an hour and 17 minutes to script victory, lesser still to dispel the hype.
The 27-year-old Romanian came up with a controlled yet aggressive performance from start to finish and sealed the match 6-2, 6-3.
“I knew I had to play fast, quick, to stay very close to the baseline, which I did today,” she said. “Also to serve well, because she returns pretty strong; she stays into the court and takes the return very fast.”
Halep looked lively against a seemingly sluggish 38-year-old, twice a finalist at the Australian Open. Williams’ serve, arguably her most lethal weapon, lacked the sting that often helps her create openings. She had a low 59 percent first serves in, and Halep often stepped up to clobber home return winners on the second serve ― Williams won only eight of her 26 second serves in. She was broken five times over the course of two sets.
With her left thigh strapped, Halep showed no signs of panic or discomfort as she started dismantling the seven-time Grand Slam champion. Her shots were composed and purposeful, as she stretched Williams on either side of the court with ground strokes that diligently went over the net and stayed within the lines. It was a disciplined performance that had only 12 unforced errors. Williams committed 33.
"I think she played pretty flawless today," Williams said after her match. "Only 12 errors. Unfortunately, I had almost three times as many. Just needed to keep my errors down. But she played a great match."
More than anything, Halep needed a strong, concise match to stamp her authority. The Romanian had been taken the distance in the first two rounds, both matches lasting well beyond two hours. Her left hamstring had started protesting by the time she overturned a 2-4 deficit in the third set against Sofia Kenin, in the second round, and eked out a 6-3, 6-7, 6-4 win. The match against Williams was an energy saver.
Halep has now won three matches on the trot for the first time since reaching the final of the Cincinnati Masters back in August. Since then, she’s played and lost her next four events in the first round, and even pulled out of the year-ender WTA Finals due to a back injury.
“I had an injury which was difficult to treat,” said the 2018 French Open champion after winning her opening round match against Kaia Kanepi on Tuesday. “With the back, it’s always tough. You never know what to expect. That was the most important thing before coming here, that I didn’t feel pain for the month I did off-season (at) home.”
Coming to the year’s first major without much match practice was not to be her only ‘big challenge.’ Now that she’s taken care of the older Williams sister, she’s to square off against the younger one, the 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena.
Halep will meet the American for the 10th time in a main draw match and has won only one of those against the current World No 16.
“I actually have nothing to lose ― I play against a great champion. It’s going to be a bigger challenge, but I’m ready to face it,” she said.
Indeed, playing against Serena does have the ‘back-against-the-wall’ feeling. This is the first time the 37-year-old has come to the Australian Open after winning the title in 2017 despite being eight weeks pregnant. The seven-time Melbourne champion has since taken a sabbatical, returned to the game and made it to the finals of Wimbledon and the US Open. And she’s now pursuing Margaret Court’s all-time Grand Slam record of 24 titles.
This is also the first time since 2013 that Serena will be playing a ‘World No 1’ (partly because she held that position for most of the time in between).
“In my opinion, to be No 1 in the world and to be the best player in the world, it's a little bit different,” said Halep. “In this moment, I'm No 1 in the world, so I will take that. I feel like I have been there many months, many weeks. But for sure she's the best player in the world because she won so many Grand Slams. She's been a lot on No 1. I cannot compare my results to her. But in this moment, I am confident that I am in this position, and I'm positive about it.”
Serena will be a much more different opponent than Venus for Halep. The younger Williams’ sister has been looking dominant on court since coming to Australia ― she’s won each of her matches without dropping a set, and has lost no more than two games in any set. The American is looking fitter than she did last year and has an arsenal of shots that might prove too much for Halep to run down.
When the two meet in the fourth round, Halep will become the 13th player to face both the Williams sisters in a single Major, and the ninth do play them in consecutive rounds. Only four have beaten both at a Major, two have beaten both in consecutive matches, and only Justine Henin, at the 2007 US Open, has managed to beat both back-to-back and then go on to win the title.
Halep, at the moment, asserts there is ‘nothing to lose,’ and that she no longer is intimidated of her upcoming opponent. “She was when I was younger, but now I don't feel intimidated anymore,” she said. “I have huge respect for her because she's a great champion, but she's just an opponent next round.”
The World No 1 spot will be well earned if Halep does get the better of Serena. But it’s not often that the American, especially with a goal in sight, lets it slip.
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Updated Date: Jan 19, 2019 21:03:04 IST