MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Top seed Simona Halep had the odds stacked against her ahead of the Australian Open but the Romanian proved her title credentials with a breezy 6-2 6-3 third-round win over multiple Grand Slam winner Venus Williams on Saturday.
The reward for the 27-year-old Halep is probably the toughest challenge in the women’s draw at Melbourne Park, a fourth round date with the younger Williams sister, Serena.
“I think I have to play similar, if I can,” Halep said, referring to her clash against the winner of 23 Grand Slam titles. “I have to be smart, aggressive.
“I have to move her and give my best. I will not super think about this because there is nothing to think, just go there and play natural and with confidence.”
French Open champion Halep was the finalist in Melbourne in 2018, but came to the year’s first grand slam after playing only one match since September — a 6-4 6-4 defeat by Australia’s Ashleigh Barty at the Sydney International.
Halep has struggled for form and fitness since her first-round defeat at the U.S. Open last August and came to Australia on a five-match losing streak and without a coach after long-serving Darren Cahill left for “family reasons”.
She was a set and a break down here in her opening round match against Kaia Kanepi, who bundled her out in straight sets at the U.S. Open in August, and needed to summon all her will power to see off the Estonian in two hours and 11 minutes.
In the second round, Halep needed two hours and 31 minutes to survive another baseline dog fight against American youngster Sofia Kenin and win in three sets.
She started positively against seven-times major singles champion Venus, though, and broke twice to take the first set.
Venus showed more fight in the second and there was an early trade of breaks before Halep broke again to go 4-3 up before converting her first match point with a forehand winner down the line to seal victory in an hour and 17 minutes.
The 38-year-old Venus, who won her last Grand Slam title at Wimbledon in 2008, complimented Halep for playing an almost perfect match.
“I think she played pretty flawless today. Only 12 errors. Unfortunately, I had almost three times as many,” Venus said.
“Just needed to keep my errors down. But she played a great match. I think she hit her first serve really well.”
Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly; editing by Nick Mulvenney and Ken Ferris