MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Serena Williams staved off a spectacular fightback from world No. 1 Simona Halep to win 6-1, 4-6, 6-4 to reach the quarter-finals of the Australian Open on Monday (Jan 21).
The victory was a major step towards the 37-year-old American great equalling Australian Margaret Court's all-time record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles.
French Open champion Halep broke Williams' serve in the first game but that was the only one she managed for the rest of the opening set as the 23-time Grand Slam champion bulldozed her way through the set in 20 minutes, serving it out with an ace.
It looked as if she would breeze through the match after the opening set mauling she had handed out but Halep had other plans as she fought back to level the contest at one set apiece after breaking Williams a second time.
Following an attritional first few games, the seven-time Australian Open singles champion got the crucial break of serve in the seventh game of the decider and sealed the match in an hour and 47 minutes when Halep hit a forehand out.
"It was a really intense match and there were some incredible points but I love playing tennis... It's really cool to be back out and playing again on this court," Williams said in her courtside interview.
"I really needed to elevate my game, she's the No. 1 player in the world and there's a reason why. In order for me to stay out there, I just had to play a little bit like I knew I could, and I did."
“I felt like I had been hit by the train in the first set, everything was too fast,” Halep said.
When asked to rate her campaign, the Romanian replied: “Close to 10. I have the courage to say that, because I took the risk to stay home so much (for off-season rest).
“I haven’t prepared for the highest level in tennis, but I didn’t play bad, so I’m happy about the way that it’s been going this tournament. I take only the positives. I had great matches.”
Halep was not concerned her fourth-round exit could cost her the No. 1 ranking, saying she preferred to concentrate on tournament results.
“The main goal is just to play as good as I can every match, to win every match I play, so the ranking doesn’t really matter,” she said.
“At this stage, I have to work hard to get the level back, to feel 100 per cent every match. So I’ll work for that.”
As for her immediate plans, Halep said she would catch up on her rest but will closely watch the rest of the season-opening Grand Slam.
“I’ll just go home, I will rest and I will watch tennis,” she said. “I’m also curious about who is going to win.”
For a place in the semi-finals, Williams will meet Czech seventh seed Karolina Pliskova, who thrashed two-time Grand Slam champion Garbine Muguruza 6-3, 6-1 earlier in the day.