As a smiling Serena Williams made her way to the net after defeating Aryna Sabalenka in three hard-fought sets Sunday in the fourth round of the 2021 Australian Open, 18-time major champion Chris Evert seemed in awe over what she had just seen.
"Is this the next level of women's tennis?" she said on the ESPN broadcast. "Wow."
Anyone who had been watching the day's action on Rod Laver Arena knew exactly what Evert meant. The first two matches of the day on center court featured some of the tournament's most thrilling moments, and the unparalleled heroics of two of the game's best in Williams and Naomi Osaka. In front of a fan-less and mostly silent stadium due to the government-mandated lockdown, the two former Australian Open champions were tested in their respective matches.
But, as Billie Jean King frequently says, "champions adjust," and Serena and Osaka both did so in a way that left little doubt about their insatiable will to win.
In the first match, Osaka faced two-time Slam winner Garbine Muguruza in a meeting of two former No. 1s with a spot in the quarterfinals on the line. Fresh off of a finals appearance at a lead-in tournament, Muguruza hadn't dropped a set in any of her eight matches in Melbourne and her confidence pushed Osaka to the brink.
Down 5-3 in the third set and facing double-match point, Osaka won the next four points, including one with a 118 mph ace, and continued the rally en route to a 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 victory in just under two hours.
"I think today was just a battle if I can describe it in one word. For me, I feel like I'm very happy with myself for the way I overcame the match," Osaka said. "I think, maybe a year ago ... I probably wouldn't have won this match. There are so many things that I was thinking about on the court that just would have blocked me from trying to win the match or trying to problem-solve."
The 23-year-old stayed focused and composed, save for one racket toss in the third set, which she later credited for unleashing the emotions she needed. She focused point by point, and tried to remember what had worked for her in her US Open semifinal victory against Jen Brady because she has "never had to physically and mentally fight so hard" as she did in that match.
Well, it worked. By the end of the match, she had 11 aces and 40 winners (and 36 unforced errors) and had won a slew of highlight-worthy baseline rallies. When it was over, she sat in her chair and put a towel over her head in disbelief. Lacking somewhat of her now-trademark quirky charm in her on-court interview, she said she was exhausted. She had given everything she had.
She summed it up by writing simply on social media: "Keep on keeping on."
Keep on keeping on. pic.twitter.com/g3TITAVcbP— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@naomiosaka) February 14, 2021
It would have been hard to top Osaka's performance, but it was evident from Williams' first yell of "Come on!" that her first meeting against Sabalenka would be an intense clash between two of the biggest hitters on tour.
Sabalenka, the No. 7 seed and winner of 18 of her past 19 matches, was dominant on serve from the start, but Williams relied on her impressive defense and renewed ability to be everywhere on court. Williams didn't maintain the same level in the second set, dropping her first of the tournament, and Sabalenka fought back to force a decider. Sabalenka rallied again to even the third set after trailing 4-1, but it was all Williams after that. She won the next four points to take the lead, and Sabalenka's nerves got the best of her in the final game with a double fault and two forehand errors.
After two hours and nine minutes, Williams advanced to the quarterfinals at a major for the seventh time since coming back from childbirth and had notched her first top-10 win since 2019. She shrugged to the camera when it had finished.
"I just felt like, even games that I lost, I was so close to winning. Not all games, but probably most of those games," she said. "I just needed to play better on the big points. I knew that I could. "I still hadn't reached my peak. I was like, 'OK, Serena, you got this, just keep going.'"
There hadn't been a three-set women's match at Rod Laver throughout the tournament. The only thing missing was a packed crowd, but the sounds from court level -- the screams, the grunts, the sound of a thrown racket -- made the stakes all the more evident. And Osaka and Serena didn't rely on anyone but themselves to get there or to create the needed energy or atmosphere.
Osaka will next face Hsieh Su-wei, while Williams will take on Simona Halep in Tuesday's quarterfinals. If they both advance, they will meet in semifinals, a rematch of the 2018 US Open final. While Williams would likely relish the chance to face Osaka with a chance to punch a final ticket and potentially win a record-tying 24th major title, the 39-year-old simply showed Sunday she could still compete at a top level in a talented field.
"[There have] been a lot of players that really could win the title since the beginning of the draw," Williams said. "There's so many players that can come out and have won Grand Slams and can keep winning. It's good. It's good to see. It's good to see that I'm in that mix, too."