Halep, Kerber avoid third-round chaos at Australian Open

  • Romania's Simona Halep celebrates after defeating Kazakhstan's Yulia Putintseva in their third round singles match at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)

MELBOURNE, Australia — Simona Halep and Angelique Kerber have held Grand Slam trophies aloft, and so have learned to keep their heads down when clusters of highly-ranked players start losing in the first week of majors.

Wimbledon champion Halep and Kerber, who won her breakthrough major in Australia in 2016 and has added two Grand Slam titles since, navigated a chaotic third round at the Australian Open to reach the second week.

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Second-seeded Karolina Pliskova, a semifinalist here last year, and No. 6 Belinda Bencic, a semifinalist at last year’s U.S. Open, had straight-sets losses on Saturday, the day after 23-time major winner Serena Williams and defending champion Naomi Osaka exited in third-round upsets.

“Not at all. I’m not focusing on other players — just focusing on myself,” Halep said after her 6-1, 6-4 win over Yulia Putintseva on Rod Laver Arena, the match after Pliskova lost to 7-6 (4), 7-6 (3) to 30th-seeded Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. “It doesn’t matter who is winning, who is losing, I just have to do my job when I step onto court.”

Kerber had 6-2, 6-7 (4), 6-3 win over Camila Giorgi. In a later news conference, she almost laughed when asked if nervousness was contagious in the locker room when the top players start exiting.

“Every match starts from zero — doesn’t matter who against you play,” she said. “You have sometimes a little bit bad days, good days. So it’s more about caring yourself, working on your strengths and going for it. So it’s nothing about looking around.”

The left-handed Kerber next faces Pavlyuchenkova, who was a junior champion here 12 years ago when she beat Caroline Wozniacki in the final. They’re playing for a spot in the quarterfinals, a stage Pavlyuchekova has reached five times but never surpassed at the majors.

She said she hasn’t been patient enough in the past, but is putting more value on each match now. She’d only ever taken one set off Pliskova in six previous losses, but decided to target one of the best serves in the women’s game on Rod Laver — and it worked.

Having a bunch of top players missing from the second week doesn’t come into her thinking, either.

“I don’t focus so much on names any more. I’ve been on the tour for a while,” she said, when asked about the absence of Williams, Osaka and so on. “Those are really big names and great players, but it’s tennis. Nowadays, as you can see, surprises happen. I just try not to lose myself and be in the present, do what I have. I have the next match to play Angelique — why should I care about all the other names?”

Williams, who has won seven Australian titles among her 23 majors, 2018 champion Wozniacki and defending champion Osaka all lost on Friday. Wozniacki went immediately into retirement but Williams vowed to continue her pursuit of Margaret Court’s all-time record 24 majors after her loss to Wang Qiang, a player she’d beaten in 44 minutes at last year’s U.S. Open. Osaka, who won back-to-back majors at the 2018 U.S. Open and last year here in Australia, lost to 15-year-old Coco Gauff.

Bencic, a semifinalist at the U.S. Open last September, was rolled 6-0, 6-1 in 49 minutes by 28th-seeded Anett Kontaveit, who will next play Iga Swiatek, the No. 59-ranked player from Poland who took out 19th-seeded Donna Vekic 7-5, 6-3.

A day after upsetting Osaka, Gauff combined with Caty McNally for a win in the second round of women’s doubles. The American teenagers beat eighth-seeded pair Kveta Peschke and Demi Schuurs 6-3, 6-4.

Men

Rafael Nadal has easily advanced to the second week at the Australian Open with a 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 win over fellow Spaniard Pablo Carreno Busta.

The top-ranked Nadal had beaten Carreno Busta in all four of their previous matches, including the quarterfinals of the 2017 French Open.

It is the 47th time that Nadal has reached the fourth round at a Grand Slam tournament, trailing only Roger Federer’s 67 and Novak Djokovic’s 50.

Nadal hasn’t dropped a set in his first three matches at Melbourne Park. He will next play either Nick Kyrgios or Karen Khachanov.

Fifth-seeded Dominic Thiem had a much easier time in his third-round match than his second and beat Taylor Fritz 6-2, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-4 to advance to the second week at Melbourne Park.

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Fritz double-faulted on match point.

Two days ago the Austrian player needed five sets to beat Australian wild-card entry Alex Bolt

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