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Serena Williams leaves the court after defeating Tsvetana Pironkova in the Yarra Valley Classic in Melbourne on Feb. 3, 2021.LOREN ELLIOTT/Reuters

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, she’s making the most of 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 quarter-finals. She’s still on track for a semi-final match against top-ranked Ash Barty.

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

That injury kept Williams out of competitive tennis 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 warm-up 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 quarter-finals.

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 travelled to Australia for the tournament. That, in turn, pushed the Australian Open back three weeks from its usual start.

ATP CUP

Italy and Russia were the first teams to reach the ATP Cup semi-finals.

Fabio Fognini beat Benoit Paire 6-1, 7-6 (2) before Matteo Berrettini defeated Gael Monfils 6-4, 6-2 to clinch Italy’s win over France. Italy now has two wins from two starts in Group C.

Daniil Medvedev secured Russia’s win over Japan when he beat Kei Nishikori 6-2, 6-4. Russia is on top of Group D with wins over Argentina and Japan.

“Really happy for the team,” Medvedev said. “Semi-finals is a big step hopefully we can go further than that.”

In Wednesday’s other matches, Germany opened with a win over Canada, with Jan-Lennard Struff downing Milos Raonic 7-6 (4), 7-6 (2) and Alexander Zverev holding off Denis Shapovalov 6-7 (5), 6-3, 7-6 (4).

Canada was coming off an opening loss to defending champion Serbia. Germany will play Serbia for first place in Group A on Thursday.

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.”

Osaka will next play Irina Begu, who upset fifth-seeded Johanna Konta 4-6, 7-6 (10), 7-6 (4).

Second-ranked Simona Halep had a more straightforward 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 No. 7 Elise Mertens.

CHAMPIONS IN GRAMPIANS

Three-time major champion Angelique Kerber took a while to adjust in her first match since leaving quarantine, beating Katerina Siniakova 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 in the Grampians Trophy tournament.

It’s the event for those players who were forced into hard lockdown – not allowed to leave their rooms, even for practice – after being deemed close contacts of passengers on their flights who test positive for COVID-19 after arriving in Australia.

Other major champions in the draw include Sloane Stephens and Svetlana Kuznetsova, who both lost in the first round. Two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka had a first-round bye.