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Serena cruises; Li nearly loses

AP, AFP-JIJI

Serena Williams got on and off court as quickly as she could in the scorching heat Friday, registering yet another record with match win No. 61 at the Australian Open as she advanced to the fourth round with a 6-3, 6-3 victory over Daniela Hantuchova.

The five-time Australian Open champion later withdrew from the doubles, avoiding any extra exposure to the blazing sun during the once-in-a-century heat wave that was gripping Melbourne for a fourth straight day.

Two-time finalist Li Na, the major threat to top-ranked Williams in the top half of the women’s draw, had to save a match point before coming back to beat No. 26-seeded Lucie Safarova 1-6, 7-6 (7-2), 6-3 in 2 hours, 37 minutes.

Li, the 2011 French Open champion, later joked that she needed the match practice “because I think the weather is not warm enough.”

Williams didn’t face any serious danger in her win over No. 31-seeded Hantuchova, whose only win in 10 head-to-head matches came in the corresponding round at the 2006 Australian Open.

Williams was off the court in 1 hour, 20 minutes, and has conceded just 12 games in three straight-set wins this week.

She equaled Margaret Court’s Australian Open mark of 60 wins with her second-round victory, and beat that in the third round when she also matched Lindsay Davenport’s record of 69 main-draw matches here in the Open era. That means she’ll set another record just by showing up on Sunday, against the winner of the night match between 2011 U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur and former No. 1-ranked Ana Ivanovic.

“It was a tough match . . . it’s definitely hot, but you have to be ready to play,” she said. “And then you have to prepare yourself mentally, too.”

The temperature hit 39 C during Williams’ match and topped 42 C by the mid-afternoon, but humidity remained low.

Rod Laver Arena was about three-quarters full for the match, though it was a quiet crowd — people seemed to be expending more energy fanning themselves with programs and newspapers than applauding points on the court.

Williams has won 24 matches dating back to August, carrying momentum from her dominating 2013 into a new season. She won 78 of her 82 matches and won 11 titles last year, and seems to be getting better with age.

“I feel like, in life 32 is young. In sports it’s old,” she said. “But for whatever reason, I feel like I just never was really able to reach my full potential, and I feel like recently I just have been able to do a little better. I just keep trying to improve on everything.”

The Williams sisters were entered in the doubles but withdrew after Serena’s singles match Friday, citing a leg left injury for Venus.

“I love playing doubles, love playing with Venus, but sometimes it doesn’t work out,” she said. “I guess it’s a relief, but like I say, we love to play doubles and we love to be out there . . . so I’ll definitely miss it.”

Li avoided matching her earliest exit at the tournament since 2008, and set up a clash with Russian 22nd seed Ekaterina Makarova for a place in the quarterfinals.

But it was a narrow escape for Li who self-destructed in the first set and had to draw on all her experience to find a way past Safarova, who was playing with her right thigh heavily strapped and her left shoulder taped.

“In the beginning she played very nice, very good and it was tough to find any rhythm,” said the popular Li, who has more than 10 million fans on Chinese social media.

“I’m happy I was able to fight and win the match. I just tried to play at the baseline and move the ball around the court.”

Li, using ice to cool down barely 10 minutes into the match, fell behind 2-0, then held her next serve to stay in touch, but Safarova was unrelenting, pushing Li around and gaining another break when the Chinese star netted a forehand.

Li, coached by Carlos Rodriguez, who used to mentor Belgian great Justine Henin, was struggling to find her range and making too many unforced errors.

Safarova held for a 5-1 lead and broke again to take the set in 27 minutes, with Li hitting just two winners and making 18 unforced errors in the set.

The left-hander comfortably held serve to open the second set and had a break point in the next, but Li rallied to stay alive.

She got her first glimmer of hope in the third game, when she earned a break point, but failed to capitalise and went 2-1 down.

The Chinese No. 1 was under big pressure and faced two break points on her next serve, but dug deep to save both and it proved to be a turning point.

She promptly broke Safarova and then held to take a 3-2 lead, before the Czech prevailed in a long sixth game to break back.

Li was fighting to stay in the tournament and converted a break point as Safarova served for the match.

She clung on to her serve against a Safarova onslaught and saved a match point in the 12th to send it to a tiebreak, where she found a new lease of life to ensure a third set.

They exchanged breaks and it went to serve until the eighth game, when the Czech smashed a forehand into the net to put Li in front and she served for the match.

No. 9 Angelique Kerber advanced earlier with a 6-3, 6-4 win over American Alison Riske, and said her main aim had been to “get off the court before it became really hot.” Kerber will next play No. 28 Flavia Pennetta, who advanced 6-1, 7-5 over Mona Barthel of Germany.

Makarova advanced with a 6-4, 6-4 win over Monica Niculescu and No. 30 Eugenie Bouchard beat American Lauren Davis 6-2, 6-2.

On the men’s side, third-seeded David Ferrer advanced to the fourth round for a 10th consecutive Grand Slam when he beat No. 29 Jeremy Chardy 6-2, 7-6 (7-5), 6-2. The French Open finalist will next play Florian Mayer, who beat No. 20 Jerzy Janowicz 7-5, 6-2, 6-2.

Matches on outer courts were suspended for four hours on Thursday afternoon when the Extreme Heat Policy was invoked for the first time since 2009.