Williams eyes title after surviving Halep test

 - Simon Cambers

American just three wins away from equalling Court's all-time slam record of 24

Handshake between Serena Williams and Serena Williams at the Australian Open 2019©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

For the first time at this year’s Australian Open, Serena Williams was asked a question of her title credentials. The answer was a resounding yes.
Up against world No 1 Simona Halep in the fourth round, the 23-time grand slam champion found herself in a dogfight at 2-3 in the deciding set, with Halep three times forcing a break point.

But in adversity, Williams stood firm, as she has done so many times in her career, hammering down an unreturnable serve, picking a return off her toes and then banging down another service winner to stay ahead. Four games later, the match was hers, her 6-1, 4-6, 6-4 victory sending her into the quarter-finals for the 12th time in her career.

Serena just being Serena

Williams said she just knuckled down and played solid from then on but Patrick Mouratoglou, her coach, said she showed the fighting spirit she is famous for.

“She was being herself,” Mouratoglou said. “I think that's her trademark, to be able to play those moments better than the opponent. One of her main qualities is to be a top competitor.

“Being a top competitor means being able to turn the matches around, to…raise their level either with quality of the shots or tactically to win those points and turn the match in their favour. That's what she did at 3-all.

“It was a big fight at 3-all because…in that moment Simona was playing a bit better than her, and the danger was real. She knew she should not get broken at that time, and she found a way. And then the match changed.”

Serena Williams shouting during her match against Simona Halep at the Australian Open 2019©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
Williams shut the door

The first set was a cakewalk for Williams as she crushed the Halep return and the Romanian admitted she was rattled. “I felt like I had been hit by the train in the first set,” she said, smiling. “Everything was too fast.”

Halep, who won her first grand slam title at Roland-Garros last summer and who reached the final in Melbourne last year, fought back well, moving Williams around and trying to expose her movement, which is still not back to its best yet, 10 months after her return from giving birth to her daughter.

At 2-3, she had her chance but Williams shut the door and the six-times champion broke serve in the next game, before serving out for victory two games later, a win she celebrated with her arms aloft.

Three more wins would give her a 24th grand slam crown, equalling the all-time record held by the Australian, Margaret Court.

To get to a third straight grand slam final, she will first have to beat the former world No 1 Karolina Pliskova, and then perhaps the woman who beat her in the US Open final last year, Naomi Osaka.

Frustration for Simona Halep at the Australian Open 2019©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
Halep likely to lose her No 1 ranking

Williams said her level of play was improving all the time. “I think overall I'm hanging in there,” she said. “I think overall I'm solid. I can definitely go to a new level. I have to if I want to stay in the tournament.

“I feel like each day, each match, and each tournament I'm learning something and I’m just learning that I can, I have to fight for titles.

“I have been working really hard, and I haven't played that many tournaments on my road back, but I'm just trying to do the best that I can do, and I think I will get there. I don't know when, but I know I will get there. That's what I'm going to do.”

Halep is likely to lose her No 1 ranking come the end of the tournament but having come into Melbourne after a back injury, she said her focus was on the long term.

“The end of the year is more important, the ranking, so I will not stress myself about this. I just go home, I will rest, and I will watch tennis. I am also curious who is going to win.