Tennis: Serena sizzles as Osaka, Barty struggle in Melbourne

Serena Williams hitting a return against Bulgaria's Tsvetana Pironkova during their Yarra Valley Classic match in Melbourne on Feb 3.
Serena Williams hitting a return against Bulgaria's Tsvetana Pironkova during their Yarra Valley Classic match in Melbourne on Feb 3. AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Naomi Osaka hits a return against Britain's Katie Boulter during their Gippsland Trophy women's singles tennis match in Melbourne, on Feb 3, 2021.
Naomi Osaka hits a return against Britain's Katie Boulter during their Gippsland Trophy women's singles tennis match in Melbourne, on Feb 3, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

MELBOURNE (AFP, REUTERS) - Serena Williams continued her impressive Australian Open preparations with a straight-set thrashing of Tsvetana Pironkova Wednesday (Feb 3), as world No. 3 Naomi Osaka and top-ranked Ashleigh Barty struggled.

Williams, 39, has been in belligerent form at the Yarra Valley Classic and overpowered the Bulgarian with a 6-1, 6-4 victory in 74 minutes.

“So far, so good. It’s special to play here with what’s going on in the world,” said Williams, who only lost four games against Daria Gavrilova in her opener on Monday.

Williams, aiming for a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title at the Australian Open, broke Pironkova first up and kept her foot on the gas with 25 winners and six aces.

The American will play world No. 6 Karolina Pliskova or compatriot Danielle Collins in the quarter-finals.

Osaka and Barty, however, were pushed to the brink, but both avoided early exits at Melbourne Park.

Japan’s Osaka was made to work hard against in-form Katie Boulter, but fought back for a 3-6, 6-3, 6-1 victory to reach the quarter-finals in the Gippsland Trophy.

The second-seeded Osaka, who won the Australian Open in 2019, raced to a 3-0 lead in the second set but the 24-year-old Briton would not fold and had break points to put the stanza back on serve.

Osaka upped her return game considerably to wrest back the momentum and level up the match before running away with the third set and sealing a last eight tie against Romania's Irina-Camelia Begu.

"After I lost the first set I thought I just want to fight as hard as I can," said Osaka, who is playing her first WTA tournament since securing her second title at Flushing Meadows in September.

"She was playing really amazing and I thought, 'If I lose okay, but I have to give it my best shot'. I like to play long matches ... and I played a short match yesterday so maybe I made myself play a long match today."

World No. 1 Barty also had a fright in her match against Marie Bouzkova of the Czech Republic, but recovered from a second-set stutter to win 6-0, 4-6, 6-3.

“Mid-match I lacked execution ... but happy to get it on my terms in the end,” Barty said after a quick turnaround, having beaten Ana Bogdan in straight sets on Tuesday night.

Barty, hoping to break her country’s 43-year singles title drought at the Australian Open starting next week, will face Shelby Rogers of the United States next.

Top seed and world No. 2 Simona Halep downed Laura Siegemund in straight sets to set up a quarter-final against Russia’s Ekaterina Alexandrova, who upset French Open champion Iga Swiatek 6-4, 6-2.