Serena Williams, who had arrived at the Australian Open with real confidence that she could claim her 24th Major title, was given a real examination by Anastasia Potapova in the third round at the Australian Open.
The 19-year-old Potapova, who arrived in Melbourne ranked 1o1st in the world, had scored comprehensive victories over Alison Riske and Timea Babos to start her Australian Open campaign, came out swinging against Williams, earning break points in the American’s first and third service games. Williams, aided by her first serve, saved the first eight opportunities that the teenager created, but at the ninth time of asking a drop shot earned Potapova a 4-2 lead.
Williams was able to break straight back, raising her own intensity as Potapova’s concentration faltered for the first time. But Potapova remained willing and able to go toe-to-toe with Williams from the baseline, with the Russian breaking again to give herself the chance to serve for the set.
But serving for the set, Potapova’s nerves got the better of her entirely. The Russian played some fine tennis from the baseline, but her serve crumbled as she double faulted five times on her way to dropping serve, despite holding two set points.
Williams, having been handed a lifeline, was not slow to capitalise. She quickly levelled, courtesy of two aces, before putting the pressure on Potapova at 5-5. Williams took a 0-30 lead, courtesy of a superb return winner and another Potapova double fault, and looked in good position to seize control of the set and the match. But the Russian young gun dug in and clung on to her serve to take a 6-5 lead, with Williams helping her opponent’s cause with a rash of unforced errors.
Williams, however, responded to that disappointment with a hold to love to send the first set to a tiebreak and there, after the lead had changed hands more than once, Williams produced some of her finest tennis to claim the set. At set point, she pulled Potapova from pillar to post with some superb groundstrokes, Williams eventually drew an error from the Russian’s racket. That proved to be decisive.
Potapova started the second set with a break of serve that suggested that Williams was not yet out of the woods, but the 19-year-old was unable to back it up. A missed smash that brought an astonishing 20-shot rally to an unsatisfactory end saw Potapova go down 0-15 and she was not able to regain her composure. Her serve, in particular, was be a major hindrance, with double faults continuing to flow.
Williams, now firmly in the ascendancy, pressed her foot to the accelerator as her opponent wilted. From 1-1, she won three games on the bounce to take decisive control of the match. An increasingly laboured Potapova then took a medical timeout which brought about a brief revival, including a rare hold to love, but it was too little too late for the Russian.
Williams, having belatedly found her range, showed little appetite to let Potapova back into the match. With Potapova serving to stay in it, Williams hammered two return winners past her beleaguered opponent to set up two match points. She wasted the first, attempting to end the match with another return winner, but Potapova obligingly sent a backhand long on the second to hand Williams a 7-6 6-2 win and a place in the second week.
Nonetheless, it was a performance that may have given Williams’ title rivals some encouragement. Notably, Garbine Muguruza was in the midst of scoring a crushing 6-1 6-1 win over Zarina Diyas whilst Williams was toiling in the first set. Ashleigh Barty and Simona Halep will also have been watching Williams’ struggles with real interest.
But one suspects that no one will have been paying closer attention than the in-form Aryna Sabalenka, who waits for Williams in the fourth round. There Williams will surely need to find a much better level of tennis. If not, it is hard to see her quest for that elusive 24th Grand Slam title continuing into the quarterfinals.
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