A smiling Serena Williams made her way to the net after defeating Arina Sabalenka in three hard-fought sets in the fourth round of the 2021 Australian Open. Eighteen-time champion Chris Evert seemed delighted by what she had just witnessed.

“Is this the next level of women’s tennis?” – She said on ESPN. “Wow.”

Anyone who followed the day’s action at the Rod Laver Arena knew exactly what Evert meant. The first two matches of the day featured the most exciting moments of the tournament on center court and two of the tournament’s top players, Williams and Naomi Osaka. In front of a stadium with no fans and largely in silence due to a government-imposed blockade, the two former Australian Open champions were put to the test in their respective matches.

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But as Billie Jean King often says, “champions adapt,” and Serena and Osaka have done so in a way that leaves no doubt about their insatiable desire to win.

Osaka faced two-time Slam winner Garbine Muguruza in their first match. The two former No1s of the world will meet in their battle towards the quarter-finals. Muguruza has yet to lose a set in his eight matches in Melbourne and his confidence has brought Osaka to the brink.

After trailing 3-5 in the third set and a doubles point, Osaka won the next four points, including an ace from 118 meters, and triumphed 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 in just under two hours.

Error. Lovie, not specified.Naomi Osaka, reversed two match points to 3-5 in the third set on Sunday to beat Garbine Muguruza. Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

“I think today was just a battle, if I can describe it in one word. I’m very happy with the way I handled the match,” Osaka said. “I think a year ago … I probably wouldn’t have won that match. There were so many things I was thinking about on the court that just kept me from winning the game or trying to attack.

The 23-year-old remained focused and calm except for a racquet toss in the third set, which she then cited as the trigger for the emotion she needed. She focused on the points and tried to remember what worked in her victory in the semifinals of the US Open over Jen Brady because she “never had to fight as hard physically and mentally” as she did in that match.

Well, it worked. By the end of the match, she had 11 aces and 40 winners (and 36 unforced errors) and had won many brilliant baseline changes. When it was over, she sat down in her chair and pulled a towel over her head in disbelief. Her field interview did not have the charm of eccentricity; she said she was exhausted. She had given everything she had.

She summed it up by simply writing on social media, “Keep up the good work.

Keep up the good work pic.twitter.com/g3TITAVcbP

– NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@naomiosaka) February 14, 2021

It would have been difficult to top Osaka’s performance, but it was clear from Williams’ first shout of “Go!” that his first meeting with Sabalenka would be an exciting duel between two of the tour’s greatest players.

The seventh-seeded Sabalenka, winner of 18 of his last 19 matches, dominated his serve from the start, but Williams relied on his impressive defense and renewed ability to be all over the court. Williams couldn’t keep up in the second set, losing his first set of the tournament, and Sabalenka struggled to force a count. Sabalenka made up a 1-4 deficit in the third set to tie the match, but after that everything went according to plan for Williams. She won the next four points to take the lead after Sabalenka committed a double fault and two forehand errors in the final game.

Two hours and nine minutes later, Williams was in the quarterfinals of a major match for the seventh time since returning from childbirth, celebrating her first top-10 victory since 2019, and pulling a face for the camera at the end.

Wrong: The film is not specified.Serena Williams fighting for her 24th Grand Slam singles title. Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

“I felt that even in the matches I lost, I was so close to winning. Not every match, but probably most,” she said, “I just needed to play better in the big points. I knew I could do it. “I haven’t reached the top yet.” I said, “Okay, Serena, you can do it, keep going.

There was not a single women’s match in three sets at Rod Laver during the entire tournament. The only thing missing was a compact crowd, but the sounds of the court – screams, growls, the sound of a dropped racket – made the stakes even more apparent. And Osaka and Serena were counting on no one but themselves to make it happen or to create the energy or atmosphere they needed.

Osaka will then take on Hsieh Su-Wei, while Williams will take on Simona Halep in the quarterfinals on Tuesday. If both teams advance, they will meet in the semifinals, a rematch of the 2018 US Open final. While Williams will likely be excited to face Osaka with the possibility of reaching the final and possibly winning a record 24th major title, the 39-year-old showed Sunday that she can still compete at the highest level of talent.

“Right from the start of the draw, there were a lot of players who could really win the title,” Williams said. “There are so many players who can and will go on to win the Grand Slam. That’s a good thing. It’s good to see. It’s good to see that I’m there, too.

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