• AFP-JIJI

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Serena Williams said a deep love of tennis kept her motivated in pursuit of a 24th Grand Slam title as she overcame an error-strewn start Friday to move into the fourth round of the Australian Open.

The 39-year-old had 31 unforced errors but wore down Russian Anastasia Potapova 7-6 (7-5), 6-2 in 97 minutes at Rod Laver Arena to set up a clash with No. 7 seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus.

“I think if I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t be sitting here. I wouldn’t be in Australia if I didn’t love what I do,” she said when asked how she kept her focus after so many years. Williams made her Australian Open debut in 1998.

“I think that love is one of the single greatest things in the world that you can have. It propels you to be your best in your job, whether it’s playing tennis or whether it’s doing something else.”

The 10th seed had been in strong form so far in Melbourne, where she is trying to match Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slams, but was out-of-sorts in an error-strewn start to fall down a break.

The 19-year-old Potapova, however, had a meltdown trying to serve out the first set with five double faults and squandered a golden opportunity.

A refocused Williams lifted her intensity and won a tiebreak before cruising through the second set.

“It was good to get through that match. The first set was extremely tight,” she said.

“I was a little tight, but it worked out. Was able to play a little more free in the second set.”

Williams, the seven-time Australian Open champion, will play Sabalenka, who thrashed American Ann Li 6-3, 6-1, on Sunday with a place in the quarterfinals at stake.

That match will be played with no fans in the stadium after Melbourne was ordered into a five-day lockdown to counter a new coronavirus cluster, with players entering a biosecure “bubble.”

Williams said she had been enjoying the buzz of having spectators back, as they have been for the opening five days.

“It’s not ideal. It’s been really fun to have the crowd back, especially here. It’s been really cool,” she said. “But, you know what, at the end of the day we have to do what’s best. Hopefully it will be all right.”

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