Osaka, Hsieh Set Up Melbourne Quarterfinal

Naomi Osaka (photo: Morgan Hancock/Tennis Australia)

MELBOURNE/WASHINGTON, February 14, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

As the second week of the Australian Open commenced without fans at Melbourne Park on Sunday, five Grand Slam champions looked to gain passage into the quarterfinal round. Indeed, Day Seven was an occasion for the bottom half of the draw to shine – even if there were no fans to applaud their excellence.

There was World No. 3 Naomi Osaka, a three-time Grand Slam champion, who came into her match against two-time major titlist and No. 14 seed Garbiñe Muguruza, a Melbourne finalist last year. The Spaniard brought into Rod Laver Arena a winning record against Top 3 competition and had only dropped 10 games through the first three rounds. It’s hard to believe it was their first meeting – and you could be forgiven for thinking this match had finals-worthy written all over it.

Then, there was two-time Grand Slam champion, World No. 2 Simona Halep, facing 19-year-old Iga Swiatek, seeded 15th, a winner of the most recent major – the French Open – who had won 10 straight in major competition. Swiatek stymied Halep en route to her Roland Garros title last fall. Could Halep gain revenge upon the Polish teenager?

And, there was 39-year-old Serena Williams, seeded 10th and the oldest remaining player in the draw, with 23 major titles amassed and, remember, who was two-months pregnant the last time she lifted the Daphne Ackhurst Memorial Cup back in 2017.

Amazingly – sadly? – only one of these women will be playing in next Saturday’s championship final. All five of them are deserving of winning the year’s first Grand Slam.

And, let’s not forget – or discount – 35-year-old Hsieh Su-Wei, 21-year-old lefty Marketa Vondrousova or World No. 7 Aryna Sabalenka, who were part of the Sunday mix. After all, each of these players showed well enough to reach the second week.

As it happened, four quality matches took place across the afternoon and into the evening narrowing the women’s field, which set up a couple of intriguing quarterfinal round matches for another day.

Hsieh reaches first Grand Slam quarterfinal

Hsieh Su-Wei of Taiwan advanced to her first Grand Slam quarterfinal in her 38th major draw by knocking off the Czech Republic’s Marketa Vondrousova, 6-2, 6-4, in one hour and eight minutes on Margaret Court Arena. The victory meant that the 68th-ranked Hsieh became the oldest first-time slam quarterfinalist in the Open Era.

When Hsieh, who recently played the No. 19 seed Vondrousova (last month in Abu Dhabi), was asked during her on-court interview what she learned, quipped: “I know we just played, but I totally don’t remember how she plays so I was like … ummmm?”

Hsieh, who came in 0-3 in her previous fourth-round appearances, took control early and remained on focus throughout against Vondrousova, who was struggling physically. The Czech could be seen doubling over after many points – grimacing – while wearing strapping on both of her quads.

The 35-year-old Hsieh suggested in her on-court interview she “didn’t want to miss an opportunity” to make it to the quarterfinal round for the first time in a Grand Slam. It’s a terrific achievement for the Taiwanese veteran, who won with her own craftiness and also took advantage of Vondrousova’s five double faults and 31 unforced errors to advance against Naomi Osaka.

“It’s quite exciting,” said Hsieh during her post-match press conference, “but during the match when I just winning, I was feel it not real because there was no fans there.”

When Hsieh was asked by an Australian reporter what makes her play so well in Melbourne, she replied, “I quite like [it] here. I have an Australian coach (Paul McNamee). Most people know it. This year, I have a hitting partner, he’s living in Melbourne. We have a lot of fun together.”

Looking ahead, Hsieh gave props to Osaka in a self-deprecating kind of way. “We all know she’s a very good player,” she said. “Anyone plays her, they will get troubles. I not worry about it. She probably going to smash me on the court. I try to play my game, do my job, see what happens.”

Osaka uses ‘superhero’ gear to beat Muguruza

A highly-respected British tennis commentator suggested late during the third set of the Naomi Osaka-Garbiñe Muguruza match that the reigning US Open champion “has gears.” BBC 5 Live’s David Law, the co-host of The Tennis Podcast, tweeted: “This is a mind-blowing injection of brilliance.” The gear he was referring to, he followed “is marked ‘superhero.'”

On the brink of defeat, Osaka saved two match points, down 3-5, 15-40 in the final set. Then, she went on to win 10 of the final 12 points – and four straight games – in the one hour and 55-minute match to pull out a 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 victory. It advanced Osaka to the quarterfinals for the second time in three years.

Here’s something for the rest of field to ponder: Every time Osaka has reached the quarterfinals of a major, she has won the title. Sunday, she fired 11 aces, hit 40 winners and won many outstanding baseline rallies against the Spaniard, who reached the final of last week’s Yarra Valley Classic. Both players won big points instead of losing them. The resolve shown by both was remarkable.

When Osaka, who is 13-0 in Grand Slam three-setters since the start of 2018, was asked during her post-match press conference how she pulled through her victory, she answered: “I’m not really sure, to be honest. I think I was just trying to fight for every point. Then, it sort of led me to win.”

And what was going through Osaka’s mind when she was facing those match points? “Well, I don’t remember exactly, but I do think, like, in the first match point I was just thinking that I diodn’t hit a decent serve that entire game. So, I should really focus on my serve.

“I feel like my serve stats were pretty good that set. So, I was just telling myself to do better.

“Then, on the second point, when the rally started, I just told myself not to push but also don’t do something crazy and make a really bad unforced error.”

From that point forward, Osaka closed out the win  by not hitting an unforced error during the final 22 points of the match.

“Overall, I think it was a pretty good match. We had a lot of great points,” said Muguruza. “I felt, of course, a little bit disappointing being 5-3 in the third set up, having match points. Is never a good feeling losing a match that you feel you could have change in one second. But I left the court with a good feeling, very good feeling of this tournament in general.”

Meanwhile, the likable Japanese superstar showed plenty of refreshing honesty and candor during her on-court interview. She admitted she was “a but intimidated by [Muguruza] because I knew she was playing well.” When she was told her next opponent would be Hsieh, Osaka exhaled and sighed, “I’m not really looking forward to it.”

Willams keeps 24th Grand Slam hopes alive

The intensity of the Serena Williams-Aryna Sabalenka match was through the roof, which happened to be open on the mostly cloud afternoon. The No. 7 Sabalenka represented the first Top 10 opponent Williams had faced in more than a year, but the No. 10 seed was up to the task as she advanced to the Australian Open quarterfinals for the 13th time.

Williams won 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 in just over two hours, hitting nine aces and 30 winners. The Belarusian, who brought a three-match winning streak on court after having her 15-match winning streak snapped earlier this month, countered with four aces and 24 winners. Each won 94 points. It was just Sabalenka’s second loss in her last 20 matches.

In this clash of tennis generations – between the 39-year-old Williams and 22-year-old Sabalenka – it was the American grand dame who show incredible fight – through sheer power and mighty defense – and denied Sabalenka her first Grand Slam quarterfinal appearance. Like the Osaka-Muguruza clash before, it’s hard to believe this was the first meeting between the big-hitting Williams and Sabalenka.

“I just felt like even games that I lost, I was so close to winning,” Williams said after her victory. “Not all games, but probably most of those games. I just needed to play better on the big points. I knew that I could. I still hadn’t reached my peak. I was like, ‘Okay, Serena, you got this, just keep going.'”

Sabalenka described her match with Williams as “a great battle” … “some moments I’m really proud of the level I played today. … I wish I could finish it differently.”

And just how important was it for the seven-time Australian Open champion to get through a tough match like she did Sunday at this point of the first major of the year? Williams said: “It was obviously real important because I didn’t want to be out of the tournament. So, it felt good to kind of clutch that in the end and get through that.”

Halep’s 100th Grand Slam victory ends Swiatek’s run

Second seed Simona Halep set up a quarterfinal showdown with Serena Williams – a matchup of former World No. 1s – after coming back from a set down to defeat reigning French Open champion and 15th seed Iga Swiatek, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4, in one hour and 50 minutes. It lifted Halep into her fifth Australian Open quarterfinal.

The victory, which was the Romanian’s 100th in a Grand Slam setting, had a different outcome than her French Open loss to Swiatek – also a round of 16 match – and it advanced Halep to play Williams for the first time since beating her in the 2019 Wimbledon championship final.

“She’s the only one with 23 Grand Slams, so you cannot compare Serena with all of us, because we do not have so many Grand Slams,” Halep said during her post-match press conference.

“But when I step on the court, it’s just another opponent, and always I’m focused on myself more than I focus against who I play. And I’m trying to give my best to try everything I can to win that match.”

Halep, who finished with 19 winners to 17 unforced errors, was asked what her mindset was in approaching Swiatek, who had won her last 10 Grand Slam matches. She said: “I thought before the match that I have to be a little bit more aggressive than Paris. In Paris, I [was] very far back, and my ball didn’t go through the court. So, I thought that it’s a better chance to go and hit. But then I saw that I do some mistakes. … I don’t like to do easy mistakes. And then I just step back a little bit. I did a step back, and I wanted just to open the court more to have more time and to roll the ball better. So, I’d did that, and that’s why I could win.”

Swiatek expressed her disappointment when she spoke with the media after the match. “First set was kind of like perfect for me,” she said. “Maybe it wasn’t as perfect as French Open, but I felt that I’m playing good, and I kind of – I mean, of course Simona kind of changed her tactics, I think. And she even said that in an interview that she started playing with more topspin, and that’s actually the thing that was hard for me to control my shots.

“I felt like I didn’t have a lot of energy in the second set, so I tried to save it for the third. And third, when I got broken, I couldn’t unbroken. So, yeah, it’s tennis.”

Halep praised her teenaged fallen opponent. “She didn’t give up a point, which makes the life tougher during the match,” said the World No. 2, who will meet Williams on Tuesday. “But I did the same thing, and I’m happy that I could be a little bit stronger in the end.”

Sunday’s results

Monday’s order of play

By the numbers

• According to the WTA website, since the start of the Open Era in 1968, only four players have made more Grand Slam main-draw appearances than Hsieh Su-Wei before reaching their first major quarterfinal: Tamarine Tanasugarn (45, 2008 Wimbledon), Silvia Farina Elia (44, 2003 Wimbledon), Elena Vesnina (42, 2016 Wimbledon), and Julia Goerges (41, 2018 Wimbledon).

• Serena Williams’s seven Australian Open titles is an Open Era (since 1968) record. She’s won in 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009-10, 2015 and 2017). Serena’s 20 appearances in Melbourne ranks her second among active player, behind her sister, Venus Williams, who is first with 21 appearances.

What they’re saying

• Naomi Osaka was asked during her post-match press conference how it felt playing against Garbiñe Muguruza without a crowd. She answered:

“I actually think for me, I’m not really sure what it would have felt like with the crowd just because I was so in my own head. I’m not sure if having a crowd would have taken me out of that zone and, like, pushed me to do even better because I feel like there were a lot of balls that I hit really badly, especially super easy balls.

“But, yeah, I feel like if there was a crowd, maybe they would have enjoyed it a lot. We both would have fed off that energy. Maybe, it would have been an even better match.”

• Serena Williams was asked to describe the depth of the women’s tour and the draw she’s facing as an example of it. She said:

“I think’s great depth again. I think it’s been a lot of players that really could win the title since the beginning of the draw. I think there’s so many players that can 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.”