Serena Williams keeps rolling in tuneup for Australian Open

MELBOURNE — It’s a rare thing for Serena Williams to play a tournament the week leading into one of the tennis Grand Slams.

Now that she’s at Melbourne Park, though, she’s making the most of her time in the Yarra Valley Classic to prepare for next week’s Australian Open.

The 23-time major champion beat Tsvetana Pironkova 6-1, 6-4 on Wednesday to advance to the quarterfinals. She’s still on track for a semifinal match against top-ranked Ash Barty.

Williams had a tough win over Pironkova at last year’s U.S. Open, and then withdrew from their scheduled match at the French Open because of an Achilles injury.

That kept Williams on the sidelines until last week. She played her opening matches in Australia in a long-sleeve top.

But it was warmer Wednesday, and Williams came out hot. She won the first set in 28 minutes and made Pironkova struggle for almost every point. The Bulgarian rallied in the second set and saved three match points before Williams finished it off with a powerful service return forcing an error.

Williams was later asked when was the last time she played a warmup tournament so close to a major.

The U.S. Open, last year, was her short answer. Then she elaborated.

“But before that, before this whole pandemic, I could count the times on one finger I’ve done that,” she said. “I’m just happy to be out here in any circumstances. It’s so cool after what the world went through the last 12 months. Very special to be out here.”

Williams won her last major title at the 2017 Australian Open, when she was pregnant with her daughter, Olympia. She’s still chasing Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles.

Barty looked like the top-ranked player in the first set, then struggled for a while in a 6-0, 4-6, 6-3 win over No. 52-ranked Marie Bouzkova.

“Coming off a night match, I’m an early riser so I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night,” the 2019 French Open champion said. “I felt in the middle of the match I pressed a little bit … but I was happy to get the win on my terms at the end.”

Barty will play Shelby Rogers in the quarterfinals.

On the bottom half of the draw, defending Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin fended off Jessica Pegula 5-7, 7-5, 6-2 in a spirited comeback. Kenin was a set and trailed 4-1 before making her revival.

There were 89 matches scheduled at the Australian Open site on the middle day of a compressed week of six tournaments — including three WTA events and three for the men’s tour. The crush of matches was because of a 14-day quarantine period for all players who traveled to Australia for the tournament. That, in turn, pushed the Australian Open back three weeks from its usual start.

OSAKA IN THREE

U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka advanced in the Gippsland Trophy, but needed three sets after a slow start.

Osaka had a first-round bye and dropped only four games en route to her second-round win, so a 3-6, 6-3, 6-1 win over No. 371-ranked Katie Boulter was a change of pace.

She didn’t mind the extra work.

“Honestly I like playing long matches, just because I can gauge the condition of the court and I feel my fitness gets better,” Osaka said. “I played a shorter match yesterday, so maybe subconsciously I made myself play a long match today.”

Second-ranked Simona Halep had a more straight-forward 6-2, 6-4 win over Laura Siegemund.

Also advancing were third-seeded Elina Svitolina, who beat former French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-2, and seventh-seeded Elise Mertens, who defeated 12th-seeded Caroline Garcia 7-6 (1), 6-3.

ITALY ADVANCES

Italy is the first team through to the ATP Cup semifinals after winning the first two singles matches against France.

Fabio Fognini beat Benoit Paire 6-1, 7-6 (2) before Matteo Berrettini defeated Gael Monfils 6-4, 6-2.

Italy remains unbeaten and assured of topping Group C in the 12-team event following its 2-1 win over Austria on Tuesday.

In Wednesday’s other matches, Germany beat Canada 2-0 in the other early match. Jan-Lennard Struff downed Milos Raonic 7-6 (4), 7-6 (2) and Alexander Zverev held off Denis Shapovalov 6-7 (5), 6-3, 7-6 (4).

Canada was coming off an opening loss to defending champion Serbia and now can’t make the semifinals.

Germany will play Serbia for first place in Group A on Thursday.

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