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Serena Williams outlasts teen Anastasia Potapova to advance at Australian Open; Naomi Osaka cruises

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Serena Williams will be part of the weekend action at the Australian Open. Spectators will not.

Williams overcame erratic strokes and two set points to beat Anastasia Potapova 7-6 (5), 6-2 on Friday and advance to the fourth round.

The surprisingly close match entertained a modest crowd in Rod Laver Arena, but government officials announced fans will be banned from the tournament for five days beginning Saturday because of a COVID-19 outbreak at a Melbourne hotel, although not a player hotel.

The Grand Slam tournament had been the first in a year to allow sizable crowds.

Williams learned the news about the ban after her match.

“It’s going to be a rough few days for, I think, everyone.

But we’ll hopefully get through it,” Williams said. “It’s not ideal. It’s been really fun to have the crowd back, especially here. It’s been really cool.

But you know what? At the end of the day, we have to do what’s best. Hopefully it will be all right.”

Williams, 39, is again seeking to tie Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles. Williams won her 23rd at the 2017 Australian Open.

She was eliminated in the third round at Melbourne last year and appeared destined for the same fate Friday until the 19-year-old Potapova became unnerved.

Serving at 5-4, the young Russian held two set points but double-faulted five times and was broken.

Potapova squandered another lead in the tiebreaker, committing unforced errors on the final three points.
Serena Williams in action

The last was perhaps the best of the match, with Williams playing spectacular defense to extend a 21-shot rally that ended when a weary Potapova misfired on a forehand.

Another wild scramble two games later swung the match even more in Williams’ direction and had her laughing before the rally ended.

She chased down a drop shot at the net, retreated to retrieve a lob and watched from near the backstop as Potapova smacked an overhead into the net.

“I don’t have much experience on those stages,” said Potapova, who was visited by a trainer in the second set for what she described as pain between her ribs that made it hard to breathe.

“For me, it was an absolutely mental thing. I was overthinking. I was overplaying. Overhitting.

“Respect to Serena. She came back. She just didn’t let it go. She kept fighting for each point, for each ball.”

Said Williams with a grin: “I’ve still got the wheels. I wasn’t playing my best today. I started playing defense; it was the one thing that kept me in the match.”

Williams won despite losing serve three times and committing 31 unforced errors.

“It was just a weird day,” she said. “Sometimes these matches are really just about getting through them and forgetting them and moving forward.

In the past I wasn’t able to do that because I was so hard on myself, and it would affect me in the future. I’m still learning.”

Seeded 10th, she’ll next face Aryna Sabalenka, who matched her best Grand Slam showing by advancing to the round of 16 with a 6-3, 6-1 win over American Ann Li.

Sabalenka is the only woman among the top 16 seeds who has yet to reach a major quarterfinal. Her best effort previously came when she earned a fourth-round berth at the 2018 US Open.

“I really want to play well in the Grand Slams, go as far as I can,” Sabalenka said. “I’m trying to come out in the big stadiums and show my best.”

The Belarusian did that by overpowering Li from the start, winning her first two service games at love and then breaking at love. Sabalenka held every serve and pounded 15 forehand winners.

Sabalenka, 22, has won 23 of her past 26 matches.

“She hits very hard. She has a big, big power game,” Williams said about Sabalenka. “She’s a big girl, strong like myself.”

In other women’s third-round play, Naomi Osaka is back in the fourth round of the Australian Open for the first time since her title run in 2019.

Osaka overcame 28 unforced errors and saved six of seven break points she faced in a 6-3, 6-2 win over 27th-seeded Ons Jabeur of Tunisia on Friday.

“I was really nervous and scared because I didn’t know if she was going to hit a drop shot on any ball,” Osaka said of playing Jabeur for the first time.

Osaka was stunned last year in the third round at Melbourne Park by then-15-year-old Coco Gauff. She has looked solid so far this year, dropping just 13 games in her first three matches.

Osaka and Williams are the only two former Australian Open champions remaining in the draw after the losses by Sofia Kenin, Victoria Azarenka and Angelique Kerber.

Osaka next faces another in-form player, two-time major winner Garbine Muguruza, who defeated Zarina Diyas 6-1, 6-1 and has lost even fewer games (10) en route to the fourth round.

French Open champion Iga Swiatek ran her Grand Slam winning streak to 10 matches by beating Fiona Ferro 6-4, 6-3 at Melbourne Park.

The 15th-seeded Swiatek is into the fourth round at the Australian Open for the second year in a row.

She can get to her first quarterfinal in Australia if she eliminates two-time major champion Simona Halep next.

Swiatek is a 19-year-old from Poland who had never won a tour-level title until claiming a Grand Slam trophy at Roland Garros in October.

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