Thirty-one grand slam titles were present and accounted for during three highly anticipated women’s showdowns on Sunday at the Australian Open and what their owners produced was one of the great days of tennis in recent times. Three matches that could easily play out as grand slam finals in the months to come were instead contended consecutively as fourth-round contests in front of empty stands.
The three-time grand slam champion and No 3 seed, Naomi Osaka, opened the day by recovering from double match point down to beat the two-time grand slam champion and 14th seed, Garbiñe Muguruza, 6-4, 4-6, 7-5. The 23-time champion and 11th seed, Serena Williams, then outlasted the seventh seed Aryna Sabalenka 6-4, 2-6, 6-4. The 2018 French Open champion and No 2 seed, Simona Halep, ended the day by smothering the 2020 Roland Garros champion and 15th seed Iga Swiatek 3-6, 6-1, 6-4.
Of all the three matches that took place, the contest between Osaka and Muguruza was the one that shone with quality throughout. Despite being two prominent former world No 1s and multiple grand slam champions born four years apart, it was the first time they had faced each other.
Muguruza did everything she possibly could to win. She burst into the match by playing a faultless, disciplined first set and when Osaka recovered to provoke a final set her opponent lasered backhand down-the-line winners at will until she led 5-3, 15-40 and had double match point on Osaka’s serve.
What followed was an astonishing exhibition of mental toughness. Faced with the prospect of defeat, Osaka simply elevated her level to the stratosphere. She saved the first match point with a 119mph ace and the second by forcing an error with a heavy forehand. Over the next 22 points she harassed Muguruza with violent groundstrokes yet did not register another unforced error. Four games later, she won the match.
“I think today was just a battle … like if I can just describe it in one word,” Osaka said. “For me, I feel like I’m very happy with myself for the way I overcame the match. I think maybe a year ago – definitely a year ago – I probably wouldn’t have won this match.”
Osaka’s comeback was followed by a match defined by its intensity and force as Williams faced Sabalenka, one of a handful of players whose hits are even harder than her own. Williams thrives in this type of matchup, where she has to rely on the qualities that separate her from many other big hitters; her intelligence, athleticism and consistency.
After the pair traded sets while pulverising the ball, Sabalenka seemed to flip the match on its head by recovering from 1-4 to 4-4, 0-15 on Williams’s serve, punctuating her opening backhand winner in Williams’s service game with a triumphant roar. Williams shrugged off the pressure by winning seven of the next eight points to generate match points, and converted the second.
“It was definitely a lot of power,” Williams said on the pace of her opponent’s ball. “I think, if anything, it was definitely power, but I’m used to it in practice. I know how to get them. I was OK with it really. If she wants to play power, let’s go.”
The final battle ended in sweet revenge. When Swiatek and Halep last met the Romanian was beaten 6-1, 6-2 en route to Swiatek’s first grand slam title. After losing the first set Halep pulled on every ounce of her experience to turn the match around. She offered Swiatek nothing, committing just seven unforced errors in the final two sets as the 19-year-old Pole left with a lesson rather than victory.
Despite all of the efforts exerted and emotions unleashed from those in the bottom half of death, somehow we have only reached the quarter‑finals. Osaka will face the unseeded Taiwanese genius Hsieh Su‑wei. Williams and Halep will rekindle their rivalry since Halep dominated their 2019 Wimbledon final. In the women’s bottom half at least, there will be two more reasons to watch.