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Serena locks down to beat Potapova and reach fourth round

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - As news broke on Friday that Melbourne would head into a snap lockdown to contain an outbreak of COVID-19, Serena Williams was already on court at the Australian Open playing potentially her last match in front of crowds at the tournament.

Tennis - Australian Open - Melbourne Park, Melbourne, Australia, February 12, 2021 Serena Williams of the U.S. is interviewed after winning her third round match against Russia's Anastasia Potapova REUTERS/Kelly Defina

It was a distraction neither Williams nor her opponent Anastasia Potapova would have wanted before their third round match at a Grand Slam that has been on high alert since it started on Monday.

Williams completed a 7-6(5) 6-2 win in the sunshine at Rod Laver Arena then gushed about her daughter Olympia learning tennis in the on-court interview, drawing cheers from fans.

“Actually, I didn’t know at all until the match was over. I think it’s good that I didn’t know,” Williams later told reporters.

“It’s rough. It’s going to be a rough few days for I think everyone. But we’ll hopefully get through it.”

The tournament will go on but Williams’s bid for a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title will proceed without fans in the terraces for at least five days from Saturday.

Barring the home hero and world number one Ash Barty, Williams is arguably the hottest ticket in the women’s draw at Melbourne Park, where she has won seven titles.

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“I feel like I’ve always had a great reaction from the Australian crowd, to be honest,” said the American.

“I’ve always felt like Australia has been a place I’ve always loved to play.”

Although it was not her best tennis on Friday, Williams gave the crowd ample suspense as she slumped to a 5-3 deficit in an error-strewn first set.

She survived two set points before getting the match back on serve when Potapova double-faulted.

From there, it was all on Williams’s terms.

If there was any doubt about her motivation to compete at the age of 39, it would have been crushed when, in one thrilling rally, she grinned broadly as she scrambled behind the baseline to retrieve a lob and flicked it over her head.

The shot landed in and bounced up nicely for Potapova but the Russian’s smash thudded into the net.

“I wouldn’t be in Australia if I didn’t love what I do,” said Williams, who will face seventh seed Aryna Sabalenka for a place in the quarter-finals.

“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.”

Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Richard Pullin