MELBOURNE – World No 1 Simona Halep said it felt like a freight train hit her on Monday after Serena Williams steamed past the top-seeded Romanian and into the Australian Open quarter-finals.
Halep mounted a gutsy fightback after weathering an early onslaught, but Williams kept her quest for a record-equalling 24th major alive with a 6-1 4-6 6-4 win.
“I felt like I had been hit by the train in the first set, everything was too fast,” Halep said.
It was Williams’ first match against a World No 1 since returning after having a baby in September 2017, and the American showed why many already regard her as the greatest of all time.
After rampaging through the early rounds without dropping a set, the 37-year-old was at least forced to work for her victory by Halep, who on paper is the top-ranked player in the world.
“It was an intense match and there were some incredible points,” Williams said.
“She’s the number one player in the world, and there’s a reason why... (but) I’m such a fighter, I just never give up.”
Williams won her 23rd Grand Slam Down Under two years ago while two months pregnant, and is the bookies’ favourite to claim an eighth Australian title, despite being seeded 16th.
Another major would match Margaret Court’s tally and Williams, who will meet Czech eighth seed Karolina Pliskova next, has been on a mission at Melbourne Park this year.
French Open champion Halep was in danger of crumbling before she regrouped for a stirring comeback.
The pair brought out the best in each other’s game, with Halep chasing down balls like a terrier and Williams blasting down aces and winners.
However, Williams said she had more in the tank and should have won the match in straight sets.
“I can definitely go to a new level. I have to if I want to stay in the tournament,” she said.
There was a minor wobble when Williams allowed Halep to bring up three break points in the opening game, conceding with a double fault.
But the American broke back in the next, racing to the net for an overhead smash when one of her powerfully hit returns flew high off Halep’s racquet.
She then ran away with the first set 6-1 in 20 minutes, blasting 10 winners to three.
Halep did better early in the second set, and when the American did break her in the third game, she immediately broke back.
Standing well behind the baseline, she drew Williams into more rallies and began to find her range, hitting the corners to move the American around. Halep broke again to take a set off Williams, celebrating with a fired-up double fist-pump.
The turning point came in the sixth game of the third set when Halep clawed three break points, but Williams held and took a decisive break in the next.
Williams denied her win over the World No 1 after not playing since September was a poor reflection on the state of women’s tennis.
“I think it says more about me than women’s tennis... women’s tennis is amazing,” she said. “It’s at the highest level it’s ever been... it’s tough out here.”AFP