Sunday, February 14, 2021

Halep, Williams and Osaka advance to the quarterfinals in Australia

French Open champion Iga Swiatek, who upset Simona Halep on her way to the championship in Paris, met her again last night in the Australian Open round of 16, and for one set, Swiatek looked like the human wrecking ball that we saw at the French Open (indeed, she has looked good throughout this event). But Halep would have none of it. "I knew I had to change something," the 2019 Wimbledon champion said after the match. Her second set strategy (which she extended to the final set) was to stop hitting the ball so flat, and to make Swiatek take as many balls on the run as possible.

It worked. Halep's 3-6, 6-1, 6-4 victory moved her to the quarterfinals, and she is obviously a strong contender for the title.

It's hard to believe that, before yesterday, Naomi Osaka and Garbine Muguruza had never played each other before. Their Australian Open round of 16 match was every bit as good as I expected it to be, and--while it could have easily gone either way--it was Osaka who kept finding ways to win big points. The more tense the situation became, the more strategic risks the 2019 champion took. Her strategy (which is really just her on-court nature) paid off: She defeated Muguruza (who was the 2020 runner-up) 4-6, 6-4, 7-5. 

I still consider Muguruza to be "back," though, and think that it's only a matter of time before she wins another major.

Seven-time champion Serena Williams and Aryna Sabalenka went at each other in the kind of match that made me tired just to watch it. Sabalenka is every bit the hard hitter and big server that Williams is, but she isn't yet the problem-solver that Williams is. And while the Belarusian has been the hottest player on the tour for the past several months, she still hasn't figured out how to get to the second week of a major (in fairness, she would likely have beaten many other players, but that's not how the draw works). 

Williams, looking both calm and fierce in an inspired Flo-Jo tribute catsuit, weathered whatever storm her opponent put forth into the atmosphere, and then remained patient while Sabalenka became an unforced error machine. When it was over, Williams walked away with a 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 victory.

In yesteday's other round of 16 match, Hsieh Su-Wei's maddening game got the best of Marketa Vondrousova, but the Czech player was also struggling with an injured knee, which was an obvious distraction. 

There were also a few notable third round matches. In the Battle of the Czech Karolinas, Muchova upset Pliskova 7-5, 7-5. Muchova helped herself by displaying a surprisingly good second serve. One is left wondering--as always--what does Pliskova need to do to win a major? (Or is this even a question anymore?)

Elise Mertens, who has become much more of a threat in the last couple of years, defeated Belinda Bencic in straight sets. And Big Stage Specialist Shelby Rogers upset Anett Kontaveit in straight sets.

The match of the third round, however, was the one contested by another Big Stage Specialist, Kaia Kanepi, and 28th seed Donna Vekic. It went on for over two and a half hours, during which time the powerful Kanepi threw everything but her chair at Vekic. The tension was high, and Vekic was almost always playing catch-up. 

Vekic had 17 break chances, but converted only four of them. Her opponent hit 46 winners (Vekic hit 38). But the Croatian player never gave up, never allowed herself to stop believing. In the end, they each won a total of 115 points, but it was Vekic's match, 5-7, 7-6, 6-4. And it was an absolute thrill to watch.

The other four round of 16 matches will be played today

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