Former Australian Open finalist Simona Halep withstood a precarious fourth round test to fight through against Belgium’s Elise Mertens 6-4 6-4, booking her place in the last eight.
The world number three joins Australian top seed Ash Barty as the only other top four-ranked player in the quarter-finals.
Halep, the reigning Wimbledon champion, rode a mid-match surge as her desperation chasing down balls reaped six straight games, clinching the first set and an early double-break in the second set.
Halep’s deep run in Melbourne has helped keep her bushfire fundraising effort alive.
The Romanian pledged to donate $200 every time she remonstrates with her coach, Australian Darren Cahill — and Halep was quick to point out her self-awareness.
“Darren is counting these looks. It’s for a good cause and I’m allowed to do anything I want, so for once I’m happy to do whatever I want on court. If I win, it’s OK,” Halep joked.
The tone of the contest was set early with Mertens’ propensity for power and Halep’s speediness around the court creating some thrilling rallies.
With the match evenly poised at 3-3, the pair engaged in a drawn-out exchange that pushed Halep well back — but the Romanian was able to thread a slick passing shot past Mertens who was encroaching the net.
That duel kicked off Halep’s half-a-dozen run of games as she displayed the grit that guided her to ultimate success in Paris and Wimbledon.
The relentless power from Mertens, who made the semifinals two years ago in her breakout 2018 season, proved problematic, as she steered the second set back with some aggressive shotmaking.
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 27, 2020
However, her erratic ways proved costly, as she struck 36 winners and 38 unforced errors for the match, compared to Halep’s decidedly more positive ratio of 21 and 8.
Sealing the match with a ripping fist pump, Halep said she needed to rediscover her composure in the latter stages of the match.
“I got a little bit nervous at 4-3 but I was strong enough to win the match,” Halep told Nine post-match.
“I had to calm down myself because when I get a little bit nervous I get crazy on court. So I had to stay cool.”
To punch her ticket to the semi-finals, Halep will need to overcome 28th seed Anett Kontaveit, who shook off a lackadaisical start against Polish teenager Iga Swiatek to notch up a maiden grand slam quarter-final.
Climate protests heat up at Margaret Court Arena
It’s not an Australian Open without some form of protest action, and Melbourne Park’s seen plenty over the years.
Asylum seeker protesters stormed Rod Laver Arena during the 2016 men’s singles final, and already this fortnight, Extinction Rebellion protesters staged a silent vigil outside Birrarung Marr at the entrance to the tournament site.
Now, the protests have entered the grounds, with a collective of as-yet-to-be-identified climate activists unfurling a banner during a men’s doubles match on Margaret Court Arena.
The message? “Climate inaction is an unforced error.”
— Rohan Weckert (@rweckert) January 27, 2020
The grassroots movement compelling politicians to urgently act on climate change gathered steam over the last year, propelled by the aforementioned protest cohort and teen climate activist Greta Thunberg.
The Australian Open has faced its own climate-related controversies in its 2020 iteration.
During qualifying week, tournament organisers were savaged for their decision to proceed with the day’s play, despite Melbourne being visibly crippled by ‘hazardous’ air quality caused by bushfire smoke.
That decision forced the retirement of Serbia’s Dalila Jakupovic, who was felled by an extreme coughing fit while leading in her match.
And last week, a storm front sweeping in from South Australia amalgamated with a monumental duststorm, creating residue-ridden rain that coated the courts in layers of clay-like dust.
Play was delayed for over three hours the following day, as ground staff worked tirelessly to pressure hose the unwanted covering.
Tournament organisers could be readying for even more protest action later today, with controversy surrounding the decision to mark Margaret Court’s 50th anniversary of her ‘Grand Slam.’
Dominic Thiem makes first quarter-final, moves one match closer to a new tattoo for his mum
Fifth seed Dominic Thiem looked near-flawless in his self-confessed “best match so far”, routing mercurial Frenchman Gael Monfils 6-2 6-4 6-4
Thiem clubbed 31 winners and proving effective at the net with 17 point wins from 28 attempts, as Monfils was visibly hampered by a wrist complaint.
The Austrian’s left experts befuddled over the years with his explosive game — akin to 2014 champion Stan Wawrinka’s — failing to pay off with a deep run in Melbourne.
Thiem has made it to the round of 16 twice, and last year lost to Australian rising star Alexei Popyrin in the second round.
However, Thiem entered 2020 with renewed vigour, coming off a career-best season in which he won his first-ever Masters 1000 title at Indian Wells and returning to the French Open final.
Following his breezy appearance on Rod Laver Arena, he divulged the audience in his title-winning secret: tattoos.
More specifically, his mother Karin’s tattoos.
😼 and 🐭
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 27, 2020
“Yeah unfortunately, I have to confirm it,” Thiem told Nine commentator Jim Courier when asked whether his mum’s superstition was true.
“I really would like to deny [the rumours] but no, I had a pretty bad start to the season last year some first round losses. Then she said at Indian Wells — she was a little jetlagged — that if you win this title, I’ll get a tattoo and I won, so that’s where the tradition started.”
After Thiem Snr inked an eagle feather following his Indian Wells title (not of the American bald-headed variety) and a panda in Beijing, the Austrian star already has his sights set on a Melbourne motif.
If he wins his next three matches, that is.
“For sure, a kangaroo,” prompting laughter from the crowd.
Thiem faces his biggest test of the tournament in the quarter-finals, where he meets the victor of the much-hyped bout between Spanish bull Rafael Nadal and Australia’s anti-hero Nick Kyrgios.
His day done and dusted before Aperols barely had time to be mixed, he’ll take in the tantalising encounter from the comfort of his couch.
“I couldn’t be happier to be in the quarterfinals and to watch it relaxed from home. Obviously, it’s going to be such an entertaining contest tonight and [also] in two days, no matter who I face,” Thiem said.
The fervour surrounding Ash Barty is hitting unprecedented highs, as the Australian inches closer to the pinnacle of her home grand slam tournament.
And fans simply can’t get enough.
Spectators, ranging from hawkish autograph hunters to aspiring professionals looking to get an up-close look at tennis greatness, crammed the outskirts of court 23 before Barty’s arrival.
What greeted her was a crowd that appeared to be at least a dozen people deep. Good luck catching a glimpse of the world number one with this view.
World n.1 Ash Barty is about to start her practice on court 23.
This is the situation around the court.
You can barely move. pic.twitter.com/x4gCyCMlyz
— Diego Barbiani (@Diego_Barbiani) January 27, 2020
Looking ahead — tonight’s must-watch matches
Rafael Nadal (ESP)  v Nick Kyrgios (AUS) 
It’s the blockbuster tennis fans penned as soon as the draws came out a fortnight ago and, thankfully, it’s come to fruition. The reigning French and US Open champion holds a winning record over the local hope, however interestingly, Kyrgios has a 2-1 advantage on hardcourts. Expect drama. Expect a war of words. And expect the unexpected.
Angelique Kerber (GER)  v Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (RUS) 
There’s something about Melbourne Park and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. The Russian’s made the quarter-finals twice — including last year — and did not drop a set en route to the second week. Her most impressive result to date came in the form of a drought-breaking win over world number two Karolina Pliskova, and she will need to reprise that form in order to defeat the former Australian Open champion Kerber.