Serena Williams Defeats Simona Halep, Ranked No. 1. Anyone Surprised?
MELBOURNE, Australia — Simona Halep of Romania is ranked No. 1 in the world in women’s tennis. Last season, she won her first Grand Slam title, on the red clay of Roland Garros.
On Monday night at Melbourne Park, she faced an opponent who, if judged by the numerical listing spit out by the pro tour’s computer, should have been handled by Halep with relative ease. Except that player, currently ranked 16th in the world, is no slouch. That player, in fact, is Serena Williams, pure greatness in fishnet tights.
Halep versus Williams in the round of 16 was a rare moment in tennis. It was a match in which the top-ranked player was also the decided underdog. Not only was Halep facing a formidable opponent with 23 major titles, seven of them in Melbourne alone, but she was also confronting someone who had dominated their career head-to-head matchups, winning eight times and losing just once.
So it was hardly a shock that Williams ended up improving that record on Monday, rolling past the 27-year-old Halep by a 6-1, 4-6, 6-4 score.
In the quarterfinals, Williams will now face seventh-seeded Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic, who easily defeated Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain, 6-3, 6-1, to advance. Williams has beaten Pliskova twice in three matches, but the one loss came in the United States Open semifinals in 2016. Pliskova, meanwhile, has won all nine matches she has played this season. Williams will be the lower-ranked player when they meet but is again the actual favorite.
“I have to return better, but I will be ready,” Williams vowed as she looked ahead to Pliskova. “She’s ready, I’m ready, let’s do it.”
It was vintage Serena confidence. And it also stood in contrast to her demeanor at the very beginning of her match against Halep. In those opening moments, Williams actually seemed shaky. She lost her first service game, the product of uncharacteristically poor shot-making and a clunky double fault.
But in a flash, Williams got going. Playing with great precision, she continuously sent balls deep and into corners, often for winners.
Game after game flew by, six straight in all decided in Williams’s favor. At the age of 37, she simply did not allow her younger opponent to find her rhythm. Total time for the opening set: 20 minutes.
“I felt like I’d been hit by a train,” Halep would say later.
“I played really good,” Williams said when asked about that first set. She spoke in a plain, matter-of-fact tone.
A question came: “Were those six straight games the best you had played since coming back last year after the baby was born?”
“I don’t know,” she replied, “but probably.”
Still, Halep is among the most tenacious fighters in tennis, and as the match progressed, she began extending the rallies, which is more to her liking and style. She began serving better, fending off Williams’s attacks.
“I felt that my level is growing,” Halep said afterward. “And I had more confidence.”
And after capturing the second set, there was a brief period in the third when Halep appeared to have Williams on the ropes. Williams looked fatigued, her movements slower and less sure. But midway through that final set, Williams fended off three crucial break points. In the last, she pinned Halep into a corner and blasted a backhand winner down the line.
As happens so often in tennis, Halep had trouble bouncing back from missing such an important opening. And as happens so often when Williams seems to be in trouble, she broke serve in the next game, seizing control with a string of strong baseline replies.
When the last game of the match arrived, Halep offered meager resistance. Williams had prevailed again. Total time: 1 hour 47 minutes.
Afterward, Halep was asked about the dynamics of taking on Williams, and whose confidence should have been higher when the match began.
“You are ranked No. 1, and she is Serena Williams,” the questioner began before Halep politely cut him off.
“Exactly,” she said.
That one word response said it all, for Halep and for all of the women not named Serena who end up at the top of the computer rankings so long as she is playing.
Williams now seems to be closing in on her old form after taking time off following the 2017 birth of her daughter. Even with that layoff, Williams still made the finals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open last year. At the U.S. Open, she lost the final to Naomi Osaka in a swirl of controversy and accusations of sexism.
Williams is on a collision course with Osaka again. Seeded fourth in Melbourne, Osaka advanced to the quarterfinals with a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory over Anastasija Sevastova on Monday. Osaka next plays sixth-seeded Elina Svitolina and could face Williams in the semifinals.
Williams’s goal is clear and right there for the taking. If she wins her next three matches, she wins her 24th Grand Slam title, at last equaling the Australian great Margaret Court’s total of major singles championships.
Her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, offered the strongest assessment.
“I believe she will,” he said. “She is ready physically, I think emotionally, too.”
“She is back,” he added, “to being Serena.”