Serena Williams def Simona Halep 6-1, 4-6, 6-4
The court urger warmed the crowd and announced the players to centre court at Rod Laver Arena.
“Ladies and gentlemen welcome world number one …. (wait for it) … Simona Halep”.
As the words were uttered Serena Williams strode purposefully from the tunnel onto court, white headphones on, large red racquet bag on her shoulder.
Three steps out of the tunnel came the realisation. Oops, that’s not me. Williams, wheeled on her heels and retreated to the tunnel. Awkward.
Halep walked out literally in Williams’ wake, as figuratively and literally where her career has been.
World number one? Pfft. What are rankings when you play someone with 23 grand slam titles, who leaves you in their shade … or trailing out of a tunnel as it were.
Simona Halep the world number one was playing Serena Williams, the number one player of all time. Well top four at worst, but apparently only the 16th best player in Melbourne.
It delivered a contest that diminished neither player. Halep lost but was not beaten, she did not look undeserving of her ranking against the luminary in Williams, coming as she was off a back injury that kept her from competing after the US Open. This was a match worthy of a final.
"It was a really intense match," Williams said.
"I really needed to elevate my game she is the number one ranked player in the world and there is a reason why - she is a really great player."
Serena, wearing the self-designed green outfit evidently inspired by her toddler daughter’s jump suits, lost the first game of the night. It was her serve. It proved to be a generous offering - Serena then won the next six games straight. The world number one was wiped out of the first set in 20 minutes.
"I felt like I had been hit by the train in the first set. Everything was too fast," Halep said.
"I didn't get scared about the first set, because I knew I have a better level, and I can play better if I stay there and I really start moving better and hitting the ball stronger.
"So after the first set, I got fire inside myself, and I said that now I start the match. So it was much
better. Game by game, I felt that my level is growing, and I had more confidence to go through it."
Halep caught her breath, settled and changed tack. It was like she was awestruck in the first set. She calmed herself down for the second set and approached it differently.
She was riskier after the slap in the face of the first set. She got her returns deeper to the court and kept Williams there. She used her fitness to work Williams around the court, determined to keep herself in points longer and outlast her opponent with superior condition. Gradually it worked. The longer she stayed in a point the more likely she was to win it as Williams offered more unforced errors – a misnomer really because Halep was forcing the errors in ways she couldn’t in the first set.
Halep won the second set and from being unable to hold serve she was now unable to lose a point on serve. The longer the match went the stronger Halep became.
The standard had lifted, the consequence of the outcome was higher still. The reward for victory was not just a quarter final but the self-satisfaction, the vindication of prevailing over this opponent above all others. It was true for both players.
The point of the night came in the seventh game of the third set when Williams pushed Halep off the court reaching for a forehand disappearing into the bunting. Halep stretched for it, swiped the ball across the court and left Williams with nothing to do with her racquet but hold it high and clap in admiration.
Williams absorbed the moment, moved onto the next point and won the game, breaking Halep's serve. She closed the match out from that break.
"I needed to play a bit like I knew I could play and I did that and hopefully that was the difference," she said.