Day seven at the Australian Open was an eerie affair with some high-profile matches being played out before rows and rows of empty seats amid the Covid-19 lockdown.
But there were some cracking matches, with women’s favourite Naomi Osaka surviving two match points and Serena Williams keeping hopes of a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam alive.
RICHARD EVANS brings you some of the highlights from Sunday’s action.
There was a surreal atmosphere in Melbourne as the Australian Open continued without fans
OSAKA GETS A REAL SCARE
At two match points down to the 2020 finalist Garbine Muguruza it looked odds on that the bookies’ favourite for the women’s crown would be on her way out of this Open.
But Naomi Osaka pulled out an ace before forcing an error and a year-defining moment for the Spaniard was gone.
It was the most high quality match-up so far on a windy and eerie Rod Laver Arena before just a handful of officials and journalists.
Look away momentarily and it can be difficult to gauge to state of any match played in a fan free arena with no cheers or jeers to signify what is going on.
Women’s draw favourite Naomi Osaka was given a real scare before beating Garbine Muguruza
When Osaka clinched her final point, she gave out a hissed “yessss” and will be thrilled with her win given she is yet to hit peak form. She was intimated by Muguruza who she had not played before she said.
‘I hit a lot of unforced errors because I couldn’t hit short because she would finish it,’ she said.
The 23-year-old can be a touch wishy washy in interviews but showed a self assurance when dealing with the first on-court interview question which was more akin to a match summary than a quick incisive query.
‘That’s not a question,’ she retorted.
Muguruza (right) gave Osaka a real scare but wasn’t able to press home her advantage
SERENA IN NO MOOD FOR ROMANCE
Serena Williams may be only a few months off her 40th birthday but her fighting spirit remains undimmed.
To face the in-form, and seventh seeded, Aryna Sabalenka was an unlucky pairing but Williams – backed an unusually animated support box which included her sister Venus – was focused from the off against the Belarusian.
The powerfully built Sabalenka has no record whatsoever to speak of in the majors (this last 16 match is as deep as she has gone in any grand slam event) and try as she might, could not dint the Williams resolve.
Serena Williams remains on track for a 24th Grand Slam after beating Aryna Sabalenka
The loss of a 4-1 lead in the third set briefly threatened to throw Williams off track but she held firm to win in two hours and nine minutes.
Asked if she had received any February 14 goodies from her courtside husband Alex Ohanian, she gave a firm, but polite, reply.
‘I don’t celebrate Valentine’s day or holidays,’ she said. Such a focus can take her a long way this week.
MELBOURNE’S EERIE QUIET IS LIKE A SCI-FI FILM
As if lockdown wasn’t bad enough, the low hanging grey skies that shrouded Melbourne until mid afternoon only added a touch of the funereal.
Almost nothing moved at midday in the city centre, the occasional people out all walking in ones and twos.
Within Melbourne Park’s entertainment areas, chairs and tables and umbrellas are primed as usual but sit unused. It is bordering on the sci-fi.
The streets were deserted in central Melbourne as a Covid-19 lockdown came into effect
Everything is being done to ensure Covid transmission is a non starter. At the media cafe, plates are removed the second you finish a meal and the table is wiped clean in a speed of service likely to be unmatched anywhere.
Meanwhile a positive test for Covid-19 from a player who was in Melbourne until five days ago is unlikely to further derail the Australian Open.
Michail Pervolarakis, ranked 463 and who didn’t play in the AO is believed to have contracted the virus after leaving Australia en route for South Africa. Tennis Australia officials are confident the Open’s health security bubble has not been breached.
LION-HEARTED ASLAN’S FAIRYTALE GOES ON
Two days after seeing off the eighth seed Diego Schwartzman, the fairytale goes on for qualifier Aslan Karatsev as he pulled off yet another serious upset.
The Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime has been widely touted as a future major winner but even a two set lead on Margaret Court Arena could not throw off the 114-ranked Karatsev playing in his first grand slam anywhere.
Aslan Karatsev roars with delight after winning his fourth round match with Auger-Aliassime
His win was merited without question and while the Russian has an all court game without an obvious major weapon, he is an obdurate as anyone left in this tournament.
He just wouldn’t let go again the 20th seed and will face Grigor Dimitrov for a spot in the semi-final.
NOVAK’S DISAPPEARING ACT
After heavy rumours of a torn stomach muscle sustained in his late night Friday match against Taylor Fritz, eight time Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic fuelled conjecture by failing to turn up for his allotted practice session at 5pm local time.
Djokovic, who showed no sign of injury against Milos Raonic in the final match on Rod Laver Arena on Sunday, kept eight camera crews and other media waiting out on court 14 as he apparently opted to spend longer in the players gym.
Novak Djokovic, suffering from a torn stomach muscle, didn’t turn up for a practice hit
Another rumour however had him practising in the National Tennis Centre adjacent Melbourne Park which is closed to the media.
With the Rod Laver Arena schedule running late, it may have been nothing more than a sensible decision by the Joker to delay his own practice.