Dubai: Serena Williams tumbled to the ground, her heavily taped right ankle twisting, her body contorting, her racket flying.
This was early in the second set of a competitive-as-can-be match-up in the Australian Open’s fourth round against a younger version of herself - stinging serves, huge groundstroke cuts, a fierce streak - and during a stretch on Sunday when things seemed to be slipping away.
Williams quickly put up a hand to indicate she was OK, got up to retie the laces of her right shoe and, while it took her a bit to regain control, she did just in the nick of time. Grabbing the last two games, Williams pulled out 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 victory over No. 7 seed Aryna Sabalenka to reach the quarterfinals at Melbourne Park.
Simona Halep also advanced to set up a clash with Serena after beating French Open champion Iga Swiatek 3-6, 6-1, 6-4. The No. 2-seeded Halep avenged a loss last year at Roland Garros, where Swiatek dropped just three games in their fourth-round match.
After accounting for the last remaining teenager in the draw, two-time major winner Halep will now meet one of the most experienced players on tour. Williams is aiming for a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title. Halep lost the final at Melbourne Park in 2018 and reached the semi-finals here last year.
“I am happy to get through that one. It wasn’t easy,” said Williams, who moved closer to an eighth Australian Open championship and record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title overall. “She was teeing off on every shot.”
Leave the subtlety, the nuance, to others. These two hit the ball hard, over and over again in Rod Laver Arena, exhibiting plenty of power. It’s just that Williams was barely better. She ended up with more winners, 30-24, and more aces, 9-4, while cranking up her best-in-the-game serve to as fast as 126 mph (202 kph).
When Williams needed to volley, she did, rather well, claiming 13 of 15 points when she went to the net. More importantly, she covered the court much in the way she did in her younger days, when opponents’ apparent winners were rendered mere fodder for her own strikes.
That left Sabalenka - a 22-year-old from Belarus playing in only her second fourth-round Slam match - visibly and audibly frustrated. She frequently would scream after lost points. She spiked her racket, too.
With the high quality of the match, the only shame was that no fans were there to see it in person. That’s because this was Day 2 of the five-day lockdown imposed by the Victoria state government after some COVID-19 cases emerged at a local hotel. (Any cheering or chatter TV viewers heard at home was being piped in to broadcasters’ feeds).