October 21, 2021

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Serena Williams relieved after battling past Aryna Sabalenka

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Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka both survived close battles to reach the quarter-finals of the Australian Open.

Third seed and title favourite Osaka saved two match points on her way to a 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 victory over last year’s runner-up Garbine Muguruza while Williams was a 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 winner against Aryna Sabalenka.

Seventh seed Sabalenka has been one of the form players of the last few months and many people have been waiting for the big-hitting Belarusian to make a grand slam breakthrough.

She fought back from 1-4 to draw level in the final set but Williams was just too strong in the end.

The 39-year-old, who is now again within touching distance of a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam singles title, said: “It felt good to kind of clutch that in the end and get through that.

“I just felt like even games that I lost, I was so close to winning. Not all games, but probably most of those games. 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’.”

Osaka hung on by the skin of her teeth against Muguruza, who was full of confidence after a strong start to the season.

The Spaniard led by a set and a break and held two match points at 5-3 in the deciding set only for Osaka, the 2019 champion in Melbourne, to pull through with a run of four games in a row.

Asked how she had dug herself out of trouble, the Japanese star said: “I’m not really sure, to be honest. I was just trying to fight for every point, then it sort of led me to win.

“On the first match point, I was just thinking that I didn’t hit a decent serve that entire game, so I should really focus on my serve. I feel like my serve stats were pretty good that set, so I was just telling myself to do better.

“Then on the second point, when the rally started, I just told myself not to push (the ball) but also don’t do something crazy and make a really bad unforced error.”

Osaka also credited a brief moment of temper for clearing her mind, saying: “I felt the entire match I was overthinking. There was a moment when I got angry and hit my racquet on the ground. I feel like I released a lot of the thoughts that I had. It just made me go more into instinct-based tennis.”

Osaka will next face the highly unconventional Hsieh Su-wei, who at 35 became the oldest player to reach a first slam quarter-final in the Open era with a 6-4 6-2 victory over Marketa Vondrousova.

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