KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. — One point from victory, Maria Sharapova chased after a shot in the corner but couldn’t reach it, so she had to keep playing.
Nearly an hour later she was still at it, trying to win that elusive clinching point against stubborn Lucie Safarova.
Sharapova needed nine match points before she finally closed out a win Saturday night in the third round of the Sony Open, beating Safarova 6-4, 6-7 (7), 6-2.
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”After a match like that, it’s tough to have only one winner,” Sharapova said, ”because both players give a lot and both want to win so much.”
No. 1-ranked Serena Williams won a marathon, too, taking 2 1/2 hours to eliminate Caroline Garcia 6-4, 4-6, 6-4. Men’s No. 1 Rafael Nadal began a bid for his first Key Biscayne title by beating Lleyton Hewitt 6-1, 6-3.
Sharapova had two match points in the tiebreaker, and seven more in the final game. The No. 26-seeded Safarova stayed alive with a succession of clutch winners.
”She kept hitting unbelievable shots,” Sharapova said. ”One more. One more. I said, `How many chances are you going to get?’ I thought our level was quite high in the end.”
With the capacity crowd in a frenzy, a long exchange on the final point ended with Safarova pushing a weary forehand into the net. She then shared a hug with Sharapova.
The match took three hours and ended at 10 p.m. to conclude an 11-hour day session on the stadium court, with two night-session matches to come.
Williams’ match was a thriller, too. A succession of long rallies left her grunting, stumbling, lunging, squealing, flailing her arms and scolding herself.
Despite all the drama and trauma, she moved one round closer to a record seventh Key Biscayne title.
Williams is playing in her first tournament after a monthlong layoff, and rustiness might explain her 41 unforced errors, including seven double-faults. The 20-year-old Garcia kept Williams on her heels with deep groundstrokes and serves that topped out at 117 mph.
”I can play a hundred times better,” Williams said. ”I really gave myself a tremendous amount of trouble out there. Granted she played great, but I made so many errors … 40-something errors. It’s not the way to play professional tennis. Maybe amateur.”
Three-time champion Novak Djokovic was off Saturday but advanced to the fourth round anyway when his next scheduled opponent, Florian Mayer, withdrew because of a groin injury. Djokovic’s next match will be Tuesday.
No. 10-seeded John Isner rallied to win an all-American matchup against Donald Young, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-4. Isner is back in the top 10 this week for the first time in 18 months.
Sam Querrey, Ryan Harrison and Jack Sock lost second-round matches. That left Isner as the lone remaining American in the men’s draw, reflecting the state of U.S. tennis.
”The state is not the greatest it has ever been,” Isner said.
Stanislas Wawrinka bounced back from his first loss of the year by beating Daniel Gimeno-Traver 6-0, 3-6, 6-3. No. 7 Tomas Berdych joined Wawrinka in the third round by beating Stephane Robert 7-6 (5), 6-1.
Williams and Garcia engaged in a succession of side-to-side baseline exchanges that had the stadium crowd roaring. But she finished in a hurry, serving out the final game at love with the help of consecutive aces.
Reigning Wimbledon champion Andy Murray has predicted that Garcia will someday climb to No. 1, but the Frenchwoman is now 0-3 against Williams.
”It’s always nice to play against a big player,” Garcia said. ”You are working and practicing to play this match, because it’s in this kind of match you can learn more. But next time I prefer to win.”
Williams is playing for the 14th time at Key Biscayne, an hour from her home in Palm Beach Gardens. She won the event for the first time in 2002 and tied Andre Agassi’s record of six titles last year.