• Serena still has three matches to win for major No. 24, but she looks like the player to beat after an epic three-set win over the world No. 1.
By Jon Wertheim
January 21, 2019

MELBOURNE — Day eight of the Australian Open was highlighted by an epic three-setter between the two women with the best chance of winning the title, but that wasn't the only story from Monday. Here are five thoughts on all the action. 

• They tried something new at the Australian Open this year and held the women’s final on a Monday night. We jest. But in a match pitting, perhaps, the two players with the best chance of winning the title, Serena Williams took down No.1 Simona Halep in an Instaclassic tonight, winning 6-1, 4-6, 6-4. There are stats that will impart information information: Serena served well, hit 44 winners and broke Halep’s serve five times. But as usual with Serena, there was also the eye-test—unquantifiable earmarks of excellence and an uncanny ability to summon her best tennis when the situation calls for it. (She has now won—get this—21 of her last 22 matches against top-five players at Grand Sllams.) Halep was a major obstacle, pun intended, between Serena and her 24th Grand Slam title. She still has three more matches to win, but this was a resounding bit of statement-making…

• Though the match ended before midnight on Sunday, the complex was still pulsing with talk of Roger Federer’s defeat at the dexterous hands of Stefanos Tsitsipas. The defending champ was taken out by a 20-year-old who played fearlessly and was just a bit better than Federer in every dimension. He was more aggressive, won more points off his one-handed backhand, hit one more winner, committed 19 fewer errors, approached the net more ofte  and generally turned Federer into a defensive player. We resist the pass-the-torch narrative on the basis of one match. But—and Federer fans can debate whether this is encouraging or discouraging—this match was about more about Tsitsipas’ level than Federer. And if, in fact, this marked the arrival of a new player, we’ll take a guy with a one-handed backhand, an offbeat personality and a real openness.

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While we’re here: Read the tea leaves how you like, but Federer stayed in the news with his announcement that he plans on breaking with recent tradition and playing the clay season. The kneejerk response is that Federer is doing a victory lap. I would suggest he simply wants some flexibility in his schedule and some more match play.

• Naomi Osaka was terrifically impressive in winning the U.S. Open last fall. But she’s been just as impressive since, embracing her expectations and evolving as a player. For the second straight match here, she faced a tricky, sly opponent—Latvia’s Anastasija Sevastova—dropped the first set and then solved the riddle, winning 4-6, 6-3, 6-4. These wins don’t make for big waves; but they do cement confidence and don’t go overlooked in the locker room. Osaka faces Elina Svitolina next, who beat Madison Keys by the odd score of 6-2, 1-6, 6-1. For Osaka, at age 20, to win one major and reached the latter rounds of the very next one speaks well of her long-term prospects.

RECAP: All the scores from Day Eight of the Australian Open  

• In contrast to Tsitsipas and Osaka, the star of Sascha Zverev dimmed today. The German was seeded fourth but it came with skepticism, as his results at conventional best-of-three events have been far superior to his results at majors, where players truly make their bones. That was the case again today. Zverev broke Milos Raonic’s serve—no small feat—in the first game. Then, inexplicably, he lost 12 of the next 13 games, doing a Pete Townshend job on his racket in the process. Zverev made a match of it in the third, but fell 6-1, 6-1, 7-6 . This was his 15th Grand Slam; he’s been past the fourth round just once. That said, credit to Raonic, who is healthy at last and playing—and serving— as well as anyone in the draw.

<• Today the 2019 inductees into the International Tennis Hall of Fame were announced. Mary Pierce and Yevgeny Kafelnikov got the nod. So did Li Na, whose induction speech is sure to be worth the price of admission. Interestingly, each won the Australian Open and French Open—and no other majors. Those on the ballot who did not make the cut include: Thomas Muster, Goran Ivanisevic, and Conchita Martinez.

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