Australian Open 2021: Records continue to fall, as Williams reaches 40th Major semi

Serena Williams will face fellow former champion Osaka, who put out Su-wei Hsieh

Serena Williams
Serena Williams (Photo: Tennis Australia / Handout)

In what is shaping up to be one of the toughest possible draws for seven-time Australian Open champion Serena Williams, the extraordinary American took yet another step towards that elusive record—the 24 Major titles of Margaret Court.

Since winning No23 four years ago, on this same court and while two months pregnant, Williams has come painfully close. Four Major finals, and on the resumption of the 2020 season, a battle royal in reaching the semis of the US Open, with four three-setters back to back before losing to Victoria Azarenka.

Little wonder she pulled out of her second match at Roland Garros in a chilly, Parisian autumn, nursing an Achilles problem. But that gave her time through a long off season to work on her movement, stamina, and fitness. It was probably also a wise decision, after her long quarter-final at Melbourne’s Yarra Valley Classic, to pull out and rehab some shoulder stiffness.

There is no doubt that all the players in Australia this year have faced physical difficulties from lack of court time and competitive matches. Even those who had the benefit of a ‘soft’ quarantine and some exhibition play in Adelaide have had to nurse their bodies through abdominal and back stiffness: witness world No1 Novak Djokovic and No2 Rafael Nadal.

Williams, though, looked in peak condition for the main event from the first. She was eased into things with three unseeded players, but then faced a cliff-face of a challenge. First Aryna Sabalenka, No7 seed and one of the form players of the last three months—and 17 years Williams junior. She took the American to three sets, but Williams came through more than two hours to reach the quarters.

There, she took on No2 Simona Halep, who beat Williams in their last meeting—the final of the 2019 Wimbledon. And over the horizon, she already knew that, if she reached the semis, she would face world No3 Naomi Osaka, who thwarted her title campaign at the 2018 US Open. And if she should survive all that, there was the very real prospect of a triple whammy—world No1 Ash Barty in the final.

But first things first: Halep was looking every inch a Major champion, drawing sweet revenge over the young woman who denied her in the title match at last year’s Roland Garros, Iga Swiatek. It took her three sets, but she looked mighty impressive, and supremely fit, in taking her three-set victory.

So how much would that Wimbledon result play for both women in their quarter-final?

The first few games would encapsulate the match, with intense baseline exchanges punctuated by errors and ripping winners.

First Williams broke for 2-0, then Halep broke back, in some uneven rallies. The sixth game would produce the best of both of them, though, and after six and a half minutes, Williams pounded to the break at the third attempt, 4-2, and consolidated with increasingly formidable and accurate strikes. Halep held to love, but Williams replied in kind, sealing the set, 6-3.

Williams was playing very aggressive tennis, piling up the winners and errors in equal measure. At the start of the second set, the American scattered errors but continued to go for her shots and pressure the Halep serve. The Romanian resisted, no break points, and held after almost seven minutes—a vital hold.

The errors continued to mar the Williams game, including a double fault in the second game. Halep brought up three break points, and drawn into the net, Williams misfired to concede the game. The Romanian had the edge, 2-0—but not for long.

The volume from both cranked up, all the more noticeable in the echoing empty arena, as Williams worked the break back. Each broke again, but it was Williams who finally held for 3-3, though still with uncharacteristically patchy serving. Thus far, she had accumulated 28 errors, but it was some wayward hitting from Halep in the seventh game that looked decisive as she faced 0-40.

Yet still Halep levelled at deuce after a drop shot drew a wild forehand from Williams. No matter: the American got another bite of the cherry. On the sixth break chance, the full defensive power of Williams was on show in a stunning 21-shot exchange, and she finally drew the error from Halep for the break, 4-3. But could she keep control?

The answer was a swift hold to love with the new balls, only her second of the match. The weight and pace of the ball from Williams continued to cause Halep real problems, and a final full-blooded winner delivered the win to Williams, 6-3, after an hour and 20 minutes.

Her serving had not, by her standards, been as dominant as she may have hoped, just 55 percent of first deliveries into the box. That said, she averaged well over 100mph through the match. But her winner count—and unforced error count—showed that her tactics were the same as always: be the aggressor, the shot-maker, and it resulted in 24 winners to Halep’s nine.

However, Williams’ speed and defensive fitness have also played their part in making Williams look like a real contender for the title again. Facing her 40th birthday in September? You would never know it from her undiminished intensity and work ethic as she notched up her 40th Major semi-final.

As if that was not enough, a measure of her longevity can be measured alongside another 39-year-old champion. Roger Federer has a record 362 Major match-wins to his name; now Williams has the same.

She said immediately afterwards:

I think this is the best match I’ve played this tournament, and obviously I had to against the No2 in the world.

The last time Williams made the last four at the Australian Open was in 2017, en route to that 23rd Major title. If she is to do the same this year, she will probably have to play an even better match against Osaka, who had earlier put out the unseeded Hsieh Su-wei in little more than an hour.

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