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Serena Williams outlasts challenge from teen Anastasia Potapova to advance at Australian Open

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 defeat 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 starting 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.

“No more fans? Wow. It’s sad,” she told ESPN. “Five days? I need to stick around then.”

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. 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’ve still got the wheels,” Williams said with a grin. “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 moving on to the round of 16 with a 6-3, 6-1 victory 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.

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