As smiling Serena Williams went online after the win Aryna Sabalenka In three highly competitive sets on Sunday in the fourth round of the 2021 Australian Open, 18-time major champion Chris Evert seemed impressed with what she had just seen.
“Is this the next level in women’s tennis?” she said on the ESPN broadcast. “Impressive.”
Anyone who watched the action of the day at the Rod Laver Arena knew exactly what Evert was talking about. The first two games of the day on center court featured some of the tournament’s most exciting moments and the unprecedented exploits of two of the game’s best games in Williams and Naomi Osaka. In front of a fanless and largely silent stadium, the two former Australian Open champions were tested in their respective games.
But as Billie Jean King often says, “champions adapt,” and Serena and Osaka both did so in a way that left little doubt about their insatiable will to win.
In the first game Osaka met the two-time slam winner Garbine Muguruza in a meeting of two former No. 1’s with a place in the quarterfinals on the line. Muguruza was fresh from a final in a lead-in tournament and hadn’t lost a set in any of their eight games in Melbourne. Osaka was marginalized by her confidence.
After a 5-3 deficit in the third set and a double point point, Osaka won the next four points, including one with an ace of 118 mph, and continued the rally on its way to a 4-6, 6-4, 7: 5 win gone in just under two hours.
Naomi Osaka bounced back from 3-5 deficit and hit two match points in the third set to beat Garbine Muguruza on Sunday. Cameron Spencer / Getty Images
“I think today was only a fight if I can describe it in one word. For me, I’m very happy with the way I got through the game,” said Osaka. “I think maybe a year ago … I probably wouldn’t have won this match. There are so many things I thought about on the pitch that would have only prevented me from winning the match or solving problems – to solve.”
The 23-year-old remained focused and relaxed, except for a bat throw in the third set, to which she later attributed the release of the required emotions. She focused point by point, trying to remember what had worked for her in her US Open semi-final win over Jen Brady because she “had never had to fight so hard, physically and mentally” as in this match.
Well it worked. By the end of the game, she had 11 aces and 40 winners (and 36 unforced mistakes) and won a number of highlights that were worth a highlight. When it was over, she sat in her chair and put a towel over her head in disbelief. In her court interview, she lacked some of her now quirky charm and said she was exhausted. She had given everything she had.
She summed it up by simply writing on social media, “Keep it up.”
So on. pic.twitter.com/g3TITAVcbP
– Naomi Osaka Naomi Osaka (@naomiosaka) February 14, 2021
It would have been hard to beat Osaka’s performance, but it was from Williams’ first scream of “Come on!” that their first encounter against Sabalenka would be an intense clash between two of the biggest hitters on tour.
Number 7 and winner of 18 of her last 19 games, Sabalenka was dominant at serve from the start, but Williams relied on her impressive defense and renewed ability to be anywhere on the court. Williams didn’t hold the same level in the second set, dropping their first part of the tournament, and Sabalenka struggled to force a decision. Sabalenka recovered again by the third set from 4-1 deficit, but after that it was all Williams. She won the next four points to take the lead, and Sabalenka’s nerves got the most out of her in the final game with a double fault and two forehand faults.
After two hours and nine minutes, Williams made the quarterfinals with a major for the seventh time since returning from birth, scooping her first top 10 win since 2019. She shrugged when she finished.
Serena Williams is fighting for the 24th Grand Slam individual title. Cameron Spencer / Getty Images
“I just felt like I was close to winning even games that I lost. Not all games, but probably most of those games,” she said. I knew I could. “I still hadn’t climaxed. I said, ‘OK Serena, you get that, just go ahead.’ “
During the entire tournament there was no women’s match with three sets at Rod Laver. The only thing missing was a crowded crowd, but the court-level noises – the screams, the grunts, the sound of a bat thrown – made the stakes all the clearer. And Osaka and Serena were only relying on themselves to get there or create the energy or atmosphere they needed.
Osaka will look in the face next Hsieh Su-weiwhile Williams will take over Simona Halep in the quarterfinals on Tuesday. If both advance, they’ll meet in the semifinals, a rematch of the 2018 US Open Final. While Williams would likely enjoy the chance to face Osaka and get one final ticket and possibly win a record-breaking 24th major title, the 39- Year-olds on Sunday that they can still compete at the highest level in a talented field.
“”[There have] There have been many players who have really won the title since the draw began, “said Williams.” There are so many players who come out and have won Grand Slams and can keep winning. It’s good. It’s good to see. It’s good to see that I’m in that mix too. “