Listless Li Na flirts with disaster against Lucie Safarova before scrambling through at Australian Open
Agence France-Presse in Melbourne
Never-say-die Li Na saved a match point before battling back and overcoming Czech Lucie Safarova in three gruelling sets as she scrapped her way into the Australian Open fourth round on Friday.
The Chinese fourth seed, a finalist last year, rallied from a set down and through a tiebreak to win 1-6, 7-6 (7-2), 6-3 in a two-and-a-half hour marathon on another hot Melbourne day.
In doing so she 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 quarter-finals.
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 the 26th-seeded Czech, 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 Li.
“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.”
Playing in 40 degrees Celsius heat, the Monte Carlo-based Safarova made the most of some early Li double faults to get a break in the first game then held for a 2-0 lead.
Li, using ice to cool down barely 10 minutes into the match, 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 number one 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.
Earlier, world number one Serena Williams scorched past experienced Slovak Daniela Hantuchova in straight sets to reach the fourth round and set a new record of 61 Australian Open wins.
The American top seed used her powerful serve to good effect as she raced through the match on another hot Melbourne day 6-3, 6-3 in 80 minutes.
Williams, bidding for a sixth Australian Open crown, now faces either former world number one Ana Ivanovic or 2011 US Open champion Samantha Stosur for a place in the quarter-finals.
“It was a tough match. Daniela is a great opponent so I’m really happy to come out with the win,” said Williams.
“It was hot but you have to play, you have to be ready and prepare yourself mentally. I’m excited to get through.”
Hantuchova, ranked 33, was never going to be an easy opponent and she had her chances with six break points. But Williams fired down aces at crucial times, with eight in the first set alone.
The victory set a new landmark for the American veteran, who is gunning to match the achievement of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova in winning her 18th grand slam event.
Beating Hantuchova was her 61st win at the Australian Open, surpassing the previous record set by Margaret Court.
Williams, who made her Australian Open debut in 1998, also drew alongside Open-era record-holder Lindsay Davenport in playing 69 singles matches at Melbourne Park.