Australian Open 2019: Serena Williams powers on, but Muguruza & Konta save best for last
Johanna Konta is knocked out of the Australian Open in a second-round thriller against Garbine Muguruza
One thing was certain for the evening sessions on the two biggest show courts at Melbourne Park as the second round edged its way to a conclusion. They would be late.
Both the Rod Laver and the Margaret Court Arenas enjoyed long men’s and women’s contests during the day, plus a short rain delay as the Melbourne weather teased players and fans with heat, humidity, breezes and the odd shower.
But for those with the time and stamina, there was some wonderful women’s tennis lined up: No fewer than five Major champions, three more Major finalists, and three additional Major semi-finalists. And the vast majority of those women were packed into the tough first quarter of the draw.
Topping the ranks and the draw was No1 Simona Halep, French Open champion. And she could line up the seven-time Major champion and former No1, the oldest woman in the draw, Venus Williams, in the third round.
Karolina Pliskova, a US Open finalist and another former No1, was at the other end of this same quarter, with two-time Major winner and fellow former No1 Garbine Muguruza as her scheduled fourth-round opponent—though unseeded Major semi-finalists Johanna Konta and Timea Bacsinszky may have something to say about that.
And slap bang in the middle of the quarter, seeded 16 after returning from maternity leave last spring, one of the greatest women ever to play the game, Serena Williams.
Her statistics are already extraordinary:
· Open record of seven Australian Open titles
· Aiming to equal the all-time record of 24 Majors held by Margaret Court
· Played and won more Australian Open matches than any other woman, 82-10
· Bidding to win record 11th Major after turning 30—next are Court and Martina Navratilova with three apiece
· Owns all-time Open record of 13 hard-court Major titles
· Oldest woman to win a Major in the Open era, age 35, at Australian Open in 2017, oldest ever to hold the No1 ranking
· Record for longest span between first and most recent Major titles, 17.5 years
Among her many achievements, Australia stands apart. She has reached the final in her last three appearances, winning in 2015 and 2017, the latter when two months pregnant. So here she was, in effect, returning to defend her title, extend her records, and consolidate her ‘all-time-greatest’ standing.
Having beaten Tatjana Maria for the loss of just two games, Williams was now up against one of those other former Major finalists, Eugenie Bouchard, who was returning to form after more than a year in the doldrums. She was still ranking down at 79, and thus unseeded, but a very dangerous opponent who reached the semis in her last tournament of 2018 in Luxembourg.
But the big-hitting Canadian did herself few favours with two double faults in the first game. Williams took full advantage for an immediate break, and consolidated with a swift love hold, 2-0.
Bouchard seemed to regroup in the third, only for Williams to reel off four straight points and break again. But Bouchard would soon find her range, and a blistering return-of-serve winner on break point in the fourth got its reward, 3-1.
Perhaps stung into action, Williams now turned up the intensity and volume, and went 40-0 up against Bouchard’s next serve, converting the last with a forehand winner down the line: 4-1.
But in this seesawing match, dominated by powerful, attacking returns from the baseline, saw Bouchard break, 2-4, yet the Canadian continued to have trouble holding her own serve. Another break, and Williams served out the set, 6-2.
The seven-time champion was not yet serving at her best, but she again forced Bouchard to defend repeated deuces and break points in the first game of the second. However, Williams finally gifted the Canadian’s first hold with a drive volley into the net.
Again, that seemed to sting the former champion into action, and Williams aced a hold at 116mph, 1-1. There were still too many unforced errors for her liking, and she let Bouchard off the hook and another break point in a six-minute third game.
Williams found herself at 0-30 down on serve, and apparently at a loss to explain her errors, but quickly regrouped: four big serves, four points to hold, then three more big strikes off the Bouchard serve and a broke to love. The pressure told on Bouchard, and a double fault made it 2-5: Williams served it out, 6-2, after just 70 minutes.
Williams reached the final in both her Major appearances last season, before taking time off after the US Open to improve her fitness. She has, too, looked strikingly strong, fit, and focused both here and in winning all three of her singles matches at the Hopman Cup in Perth. However, she still has that toughest of quarters to negotiate.
Next up in the third round is the perhaps unexpected prospect of 18-year-old Dayana Yastremska, ranked 57, who beat Sam Stosur in the first round and then the No23 seed, Carla Suarez-Navarro, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1.
Beyond that is the still bigger mountain of either Halep or Venus Williams.
The former, who was runner up here last year, had to battle hard to stay in the tournament through three sets and two and a half hours. Halep took the early lead, claimed the opening set, 6-3, and then broke in the second.
But the 20-year-old American Sofia Kenin, ranked just out the seeds at 37, broke back and went on to take the tie-break, 7-6(5). Kenin also looked the more aggressive in the third set to earn an early break. But Halep hit back, eliminated her errors, ran down everything from the baseline, and got two breaks to grab the match, 6-4.
Next, it will indeed be Venus Williams, who was runner-up to her sister in 2017. And the 38-year-old also had to work hard to make the third round. She finally got the job done against Alize Cornet, 6-3, 4-6, 6-0, after two hours 18 minutes.
Pliskova, too, was also forced to three sets to beat Madison Brengle, 4-6, 6-1, 6-0, and will play No27 seed Camila Giorgi in the third round.
But the best was saved for last—and last by a huge margin. Muguruza and Konta did not get on court until well after midnight, the latest start to an Australian Open match, and it promised much. For all three of their previous matches had gone the distance, most recently a marathon win for Konta at the 2015 US Open.
Muguruza has enjoyed No1 status, has held both the Wimbledon and French Open trophies aloft, but slipped in the ranks over the last year. Konta, for her part, made No4 after winning Miami and making the semis at Wimbledon in 2017, but she also suffered a loss of form last season, such that she was unseeded in Australia.
But this would be a treat of a match, high quality, big-hitting, full of energy and determination, yet played to a handful of spectators.
Muguruza got off to a flier to get an immediate break, though both were taking the ball strong and early. The Spaniard held on for the set, 6-4, and it stayed all square in the second set through some pummelling rallies. Konta’s full-blooded returns earned her a break point in the fourth game. The Briton came forward to pick off a volley return, only to see a perfect lob winner float past: The Spaniard levelled, 2-2.
Muguruza had a chance to break and serve for the match, but Konta pulled off some terrific defence to make a backhand cross-court winner, and the chance was gone. Instead, the Spaniard had to serve to stay in the set after an hour and a half of high-quality, full-blooded combat.
She did just that, and after a pause to close the roof and dry the court, they went to a tie-break.
Konta pounded a backhand winner to edge a 4-2 lead, then an ace make it 6-3. Another power return drew a final error, and Konta had the set, 7-6(3): The clock read 2.30am.
Still their level did not dip, neither woman giving an inch, both producing power tennis of the highest order. Konta held to love for 5-5 as the clock pass 3am, 31 unbroken games in a row, matched by Muguruza, but just when it seemed destined for a tie-break, Konta was broken under the relentless returning of the Spaniard, 7-5.
At almost 3.15am and after two and three-quarter hours, the last Briton in the singles draw was out but, like her opponent, Konta had made far more winners than errors, and played the kind of tennis that took her inside the top five. It boded well—though it may take her time to appreciate as much.
By the same token, Muguruza played as well as she has since being a top-five player herself—all at once, a genuine threat in the draw. She next plays Bacsinszky, then possibly Pliskova and Williams or Halep—all to reach the semis. Yes, this is a killer quarter for every woman with title ambitions in Melbourne.