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Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal Set Up Quarterfinal Blockbusters

MELBOURNE, Australia - The round of 16 wrapped up at the Australian Open on Monday, with Serena Williams setting up a first-time meeting against one of the hottest players on the women’s tour and Rafael Nadal booking his spot opposite the highest-ranked player left in the men’s draw.

The No.2-seeded Williams was first up in the day session on Rod Laver Arena and faced a stern test from No.16-seeded Barbora Strycova, finding herself down a break at 4-3 in the opening set after dropping three of her first four service games, something she hadn’t done since the Olympics.

But she broke back, squeaked out the set, stormed out to a 5-2 lead in the second set and - after Strycova snuck one last break in - closed it out after an hour and 46 grueling minutes, 7-5 6-4.

“Yeah, I feel like it was really good for me to win on probably not my best day, which is always good, because sometimes you rely on one shot and if it goes off, and then, like, what happens now?” she said. “It was really good for me to almost lose so that I know my other game is going pretty well, too.”

Through to the Australian Open quarterfinals for the 11th time in her illustrious career, Williams will next face No.9 seed and 2016 Australian Open semifinalist Johanna Konta, who battled back from 4-1 down in the second set to move past No.30 seed Ekaterina Makarova in straight sets, 6-1 6-4.

“I have watched her game a lot,” Williams, who has never played Konta, said. “She’s been playing really well. She has a very attacking game. I know her game pretty well. I look forward to it.”

Konta is looking forward to playing against a player she grew up watching. “Because of the longevity of her career, it’s impossible for me to grow up not seeing her play,” the Brit said. “I’m really looking forward to the challenge, and I’m looking forward to being out on court and competing against her.”

Other women’s winners were No.5 seed Karolina Pliskova, who beat No.22 seed Daria Gavrilova, 6-3 6-3, and Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, who overpowered American qualifier Jennifer Brady, 6-4 6-2.

Pliskova and Lucic-Baroni have met five times, with the World No.5 ahead in the head-to-head, 3-2.

The feature men’s night match saw No.9 seed Rafael Nadal, the champion here in 2009, return to a Grand Slam quarterfinal for the first time since the 2015 French Open with a 6-3 6-3 4-6 6-4 victory against No.6 seed Gael Monfils. They looked headed for a fifth set after Monfils took the third set and built a 4-2 lead in the fourth, but Nadal reeled off four games in a row to finish the Frenchman off.

“When you lose the third and you’re down 4-2 in the fourth, you are not under control,” Nadal said. “You know that you have a good chance to be in the fifth, 4-3, 30-0 for him. The match was tough.

“But I made it. Positive thing, I kept fighting with a positive attitude. I played well the last few games.”

And on getting back into the last eight at a major? “It means a lot because I’m starting the season playing the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam again, especially on hardcourt after a couple of years without being in this round. I’m very happy with an important victory against a very good opponent.”

Next up for Nadal is the No.3 seed, Milos Raonic, who defeated No.14 seed Roberto Bautista Agut, 7-6(6) 3-6 6-4 6-1, to reach to the quarterfinals of the Australian Open for the third year in a row.

Nadal leads Raonic in their head-to-head series, 6-2, but Raonic has won two of their last three meetings, including a three set victory a few weeks ago at the lead-up tournament in Brisbane.

Other men’s winners were No.11 seed David Goffin, who won the last three points of the second set tie-break then cruised the rest of the way for a comeback victory over the No.8 seed Dominic Thiem, 5-7 7-6(4) 6-2 6-2, and No.15 seed Grigor Dimitrov, who had a similar comeback against Uzbek wildcard Denis Istomin, 2-6 7-6(2) 6-2 6-1. Istomin had taken out the No.2 seed, Novak Djokovic.

Dimitrov won the pair’s only career meeting in the third round of the 2014 US Open, 0-6 6-3 6-4 6-1.

Read more articles by John Berkok

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