“It’s never too late to try again,” said Alize Cornet amid smiles. The sweat and tears part was over, at least for now.
For two hours and 33 minutes, with the sun beating down on the bright blue court of the Rod Laver Arena, the French player refused to wilt. The ‘insane’ heat blurred her vision, ‘overloaded’ her mind and drained her energy. But Cornet still found the reserves to beat a resolute Simona Halep 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 in the fourth round of the Australian Open.
When the match finally ended, with Halep swinging a tired forehand into the net, Cornet fell to the court in tears. She knelt, possibly joyous, or relieved, or both. It was difficult to tell. She sat there for a few moments, too stunned, too tired to do anything. The 32-year-old eventually got up, met a patiently waiting Halep at the net and acknowledged the crowd.
Not only had she beaten the tough-as-nails Halep but had also finally entered the quarter-finals of a major. On her 63rd attempt. On her 17th visit to Australia. In her 17th year as a professional. After failing to get over the fourth-round hurdle five times previously. Despite losing four games, and 16 points in a row against Halep on Monday.
Though Cornet openly spoke about quitting the sport for the last few months, she found a way to soldier on.
“After 30 minutes, we were both dying on the court,” Cornet said during the on-court interview. Melbourne recorded a temperature of 33 degree Celsius during the day on Monday, and it was much hotter on the court. “We kept going for two-and-a-half hours with all our heart.”
“Congrats to Simona because I know she struggled a lot,” added Cornet, who hit 45 winners past one of the best defensive players on the tour. “I admire her so much. To beat her today to go to my first quarter-final is just a dream come true. I don’t know what to say. It’s just magic.”
It has been that kind of a day, that kind of a tournament for Cornet. Ranked 61st in the world, she had dislodged third seed and one of the title favourites Garbine Muguruza 6-3, 6-3 in the second round. On Saturday, she celebrated her 32nd birthday with a battling 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 win over No 29 seed Tamara Zidansek. Having survived the trial by fire against Halep, the seasoned French player will lead a bunch of surprise quarter-finalists at this year’s Australian Open.
The lowest-ranked player in the women’s quarter-finals this year is world No 115 Kaia Kanepi.
Kanepi defeated No 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka 5-7, 6-2, 6-6 (7) in two hours and 19 minutes on Monday to enter the Australian Open quarter-finals for the very first time. The 36-year-old Estonian with a hammer of a serve dropped only three points on her serve in the second set to turn the course of the match. She snuffed out a faltering Sabalenka’s challenge (36 winners, 46 unforced errors) with some consistent and dogged play (30 winners and as many unforced errors).
Though Kanepi had a late wobble and failed to serve out the match at 5-4, 40-0 in the third set, she held her nerve in the match tie-break. She finally converted on the fifth match as Sabalenka sent a backhand into the net. The Estonian has now made the quarter-finals of all four Slams but has never managed to progress to the semis.
On Sunday, USA’s Madison Keys and Jessica Pegula caused massive upsets to make the final eight. Compatriot Danielle Collins, who had undergone emergency surgery endometriosis last April, is also back in the Australian Open quarter-finals and will take on Cornet next.
Collins, who made the Australian Open semi-finals in 2019, fought back from a set down to defeat No 19 seed Elise Mertens 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 in the fourth round on Monday. Pegula, a 2021 semi-finalist, meanwhile, was at her defensive best as knocked out fifth seed Maria Sakkari 7-6(0), 6-3.
But it is Keys who, like Cornet, is enjoying a career resurgence. One of the cleanest strikers of the ball, the American has struggled in the post-pandemic world. She tested positive for Covid-19 before taking the flight for the 2021 Australian Open. The 2017 US Open finalist fell out of the top 20 last April after spending six years in the elite bracket. On 10 January, she slipped to 87, the lowest she has been ranked since she was 17 years old.
“I was just at a very high anxiety level all of the time,” she said of bubble life on the tour. “I wasn’t sleeping as well. It felt like there was literally a weight on my chest. I became so focused and obsessed with (tennis) that I wasn’t enjoying, really, anything because it’s all I was thinking about.”
Having made an effort to start enjoying the game again, Keys found herself back in the winners’ circle at the Australian Open tune-up event in Adelaide. At the Melbourne major, she has played with carefree abandon to send a few seeds rolling. Keys warmed up for the challenge by packing off 2020 champion Sofia Kenin 7-6 (2), 7-5.
The American’s most dominant performance came in the fourth round when she dismissed the in-form Paula Badosa 6-3, 6-1. By winning the Indian Wells Masters, reaching the semi-final of the WTA Finals in Guadalajara, Badosa had leaped into the top 10 in the world. She won the Sydney Classic at the start of the year to reach a career-high of six and was the player to watch out for at the Australian Open.
But Keys derailed all that momentum by staging a 69-minute masterclass in offence. The 26-year-old belted 26 winners past Badosa to make the final eight of the Australian Open for the first time since 2018.
Waiting in the wings for her is fourth seed Barbora Krejcikova, who may not be as easily bullied on the court. Formerly a doubles specialist, Krejcikova proved her singles mettle by winning the French Open last year in only her third appearance in singles at the clay-court major. Since then, she has made the fourth round of Wimbledon, quarter-finals of US Open and quarter-finals of the Australian Open.
The Czech player and her brand of gamesmanship may not have too many takers, but Krejcikova is establishing herself as dangerous floater in Grand Slam draws, on any surface.
2022 Australian Open women’s quarter-final line-up
1-Ash Barty v 21-Jessica Pegula
4-Barbora Krejcikova v Madison Keys
27-Danielle Collins v Alize Cornet
7-Iga Swiatek v Kaia Kanepi
/ 1 year ago
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