MELBOURNE, Australia — Serena Williams took a big step toward winning a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title on Monday, defeating the top-seeded Simona Halep, 6-1, 4-6, 6-4, in a round of 16 slugfest.
“It was really an intense match, some incredible points,” Williams said in an on-court television interview afterward. “I really needed to elevate my game. She is the No. 1 player in the world, and there’s a reason.”
Williams, 37, looked a step slow at the start of the match, losing the opening game with uncharacteristically poor shotmaking and errors. But then she turned on the jets, playing with power and precision, and not allowing her Romanian opponent to find her usual rhythm. The first set ended in 20 minutes.
Halep, 27, among the most tenacious players in pro tennis, fought back gamely, coming back from an early break of serve to take the second set.
By the third set, the points began to be played with longer rallies, more to Halep’s liking. Williams, however, broke serve midway through that last stanza. She closed out the match on serve, with little resistance from Halep.
The Williams-Halep match, played before a packed crowd of 15,000 at Rod Laver Arena, was a rare instance in which a top-ranked player was seen as the underdog. Not only did Halep face a formidable opponent with 23 major titles, seven from Melbourne alone, but Williams had dominated their career head-to-head record, winning eight times and losing once.
This is the first tournament Williams has played in Melbourne since she won the title in 2017, shortly after learning she was pregnant with her daughter, Olympia Ohanian, now 1. Monday was the first time facing a No. 1 seed since she returned from maternity leave last year.
Williams made the finals at last season’s Wimbledon and at the United States Open, where she lost the final to Naomi Osaka of Japan in a swirl of controversy and accusations of sexism. (Osaka also advanced in Melbourne on Monday, defeating Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.) Williams has played a limited schedule since giving birth, and she now ranks at No. 16.
In the quarterfinals, Williams will face seventh-seeded Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic, who easily defeated Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain, 6-3, 6-1, to advance on Monday.
If Williams wins the Australian Open this year it will be her 24th Grand Slam title, tying the record by the Australian Margaret Court. Court won her titles in both the amateur and professional era, which began in 1968.