Serena too strong for Safarova
As Melbourne Park reeled from defending champion Novak Djokovic’s shock defeat to Denis Istomin, an upset which was swiftly followed by No.3 seed Agnieszka Radwanska’s premature exit, Williams restored the status quo with an assured 6-3 6-4 victory over Lucie Safarova.
It has been four years since Williams was not the top seed at a Grand Slam, but judging by her performance in Melbourne so far, she is arguably still the favourite to win a seventh Australian Open title.
There were question marks surrounding the American’s form and fitness following her unlikely second-round defeat to Madison Brengle in Auckland a fortnight ago, but Williams, who cut short her season after the US Open last year, appears to be as fit as ever.
And the 22-time Grand Slam champion has not been dealt an easy hand Down Under, with two former Top 10 players in her opening two matches. Williams had lost her most recent encounter against first-round opponent Belinda Bencic, while Safarova took her to three sets in the final at Roland Garros less than two years ago.
“She’s not someone you see in a second-round match,” said Williams, who is yet to drop a set. “I know that final was a tough three-set match. She never gives up. She’s just always fighting to come back. So I knew that I wanted to jump out in the lead. I knew that I wanted to just be Serena. That’s what I’m good at doing, is being Serena. That’s what I wanted to do.
“At the end of the day, when I play players like Bencic and Safarova, they force me to play better. It forces my game from the very first day to be at a high level. So I think it’s actually good. I needed something to start really fast. I’m not going to complain about it.”
Since that final in Paris, Safarova endured a difficult 2016, coping with the after effects of a bacterial infection that hospitalised her in September 2015, before being blighted by arthritis. She may have slipped to No.61 in the rankings, but the Czech left-hander raised her game for the big occasion and made Williams work hard for the victory in a high-quality encounter on Rod Laver Arena.
Safarova had her chances, but she was left to rue six missed break point opportunities, while Williams was clinical when it mattered most, breaking once midway through each set to earn an all-American third round clash against Nicole Gibbs.
Should she safely navigate her way past Gibbs, Williams would meet either Caroline Garcia or Barbora Strycova in the fourth round, with a likely quarter-final encounter against the in-form Johanna Konta or former finalist Dominika Cibulkova.
“I think being out on the tour so long, I’ve learned to kind of not pay attention too much,” Williams said of Djokovic’s defeat which delayed the start of her match. I’ve realized, not being able to watch Venus with all the emotions of watching her, I’m pretty much able to watch anything and see anything happen. So I just try not to get too much involved.”
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