It’s No. 1 vs. the One and Only as Halep Gets Set to Play Serena Williams

MELBOURNE, Australia — Top-ranked Simona Halep expressed relief and satisfaction after her third-round victory over Venus Williams on Saturday night at the Australian Open. She also remained galvanized for the task ahead — a fourth-round match on Monday against Venus’s sister, Serena.

“It’s always a big challenge to play against the Williams sisters,” Halep said in her on-court interview after her 6-2, 6-3 victory over Venus. “So I was super-motivated today.” As she will have to be on Monday.

“Definitely is the toughest draw I’ve ever had,” Halep said.

Though Halep arrived at Melbourne without a victory since August, she has impressed in her first three matches here. “I think she played pretty flawless today,” was the assessment from Venus Williams after the match.

Serena Williams, meanwhile, easily won her third-round match — 6-2, 6-1 over Dayana Yastremska — and then expressed eagerness for the chance to test herself against the No. 1-ranked Halep.

“I honestly would love to face the world No. 1,” said Williams, adding that she hasn’t faced a No. 1 since her return from maternity leave last year. Actually, Williams has actually not faced a No. 1 player in nearly six years — largely because you can’t be across the net from the No. 1 when you are the No. 1.

Williams’s last match against a top-ranked player was against Victoria Azarenka in February 2013 in the Doha final. Though Williams lost that match, she secured the No. 1 ranking by reaching the semifinals of that tournament and she then held onto it for 186 weeks, through the 2016 U.S. Open, when she ceded it to Angelique Kerber.

Despite her two runs to Grand Slam finals last year, Williams has not beaten many high-profile opponents since her return. She is 1-3 against top-10 players in that span, with the lone victory coming last year against Karolina Pliskova in the United States Open quarterfinals.

Still, Williams is considered the player to beat at every tournament she enters. And according to the player who has spent the last 48 weeks atop the rankings, she’s still the best in the world.

“In my opinion, to be No. 1 in the world and to be the best player in the world, it’s a little bit different,” Halep said. “In this moment, I’m No. 1 in the world, so I will take that. I have been there many months, many weeks.

“But for sure she’s the best player in the world because she won so many Grand Slams,” Halep added in reference to Williams, who is a 23-time Grand Slam singles champion. “She’s been a lot on No. 1. I cannot compare my results to her. But in this moment, I am confident that I am in this position, and I’m positive about it.”

Monday’s blockbuster match is a product of a draw that has been almost devoid of major upsets, with seven of the top eight women reaching the fourth round (No. 3 Caroline Wozniacki lost to five-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova in the third round).

That steadiness by the favorites represents an abrupt arrival of order to women’s Grand Slam tennis: at Wimbledon last year, only one of the top eight reached the fourth round; at the United States Open, only three did.

Pliskova, the only player seeded in the top 8 to make the second week at the last three Grand Slams, could face the winner of the Halep-Williams match in the quarterfinals. She is looking forward to which of the two it might be.

“For sure, the best match now in the draw,” Pliskova said.

The men have also had a steady ride to the round of 16, with six of the top eight seeded players reaching the second week, including the top four.

But those four all have tough challenges directly ahead of them. The top-seeded player, Novak Djokovic, faces No. 15 Daniil Medvedev, whose ranking has soared from No. 65 since the beginning of last season. Rafael Nadal, who is seeded No. 2, faces resurgent veteran Tomas Berdych, who beat him in straight sets here in 2015, which was their most recent meeting on hard courts.

Roger Federer, seeded No. 3, faces No. 14 Stefanos Tsitsipas, the young Greek who won the ATP’s Next Gen competition in Milan in November. And the player seeded No. 4, Alexander Zverev, faces No. 16 Milos Raonic, who has already knocked out Nick Kyrgios and Stan Wawrinka en route to the second week.

Though all dangerous, none of those men face a challenge quite like the one that Serena Williams presents to Halep. Halep is 1-8 against Williams, with her lone win coming via a 6-0, 6-2 blitz in the round-robin stage of the 2014 WTA championships in Singapore. Williams avenged that loss, 6-3, 6-0, in the final days later.

Halep said she would be used to the pressure of facing Williams when they meet here on Monday and hoped she would able to play the same sort of assertive, proactive tennis she deployed against Venus.

“I’m in a good position,” she said. “I feel confident. I played very well today. But doesn’t mean it’s going to be the same against her. I will wait. I will focus on myself — it’s the most important thing.”

And Halep, who has kept a markedly positive attitude throughout the tournament, said there would be something positive resulting from the match, regardless of the outcome. “It’s always great to play against Serena,” she said. “Because every time, I have something to learn.”

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