Maria Sharapova advances in 3 sets

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.

"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."

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?'''

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 yet to come.

Meanwhile, top-ranked Serena Williams needed 2½ hours to eliminate Caroline Garcia 6-4, 4-6, 6-4.

A succession of long rallies left Williams 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 month-long layoff, and rustiness may explain her 41 unforced errors, including seven double-faults. And 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."

Some of their side-to-side baseline exchanges had the stadium crowd roaring, and Williams needed 2½ hours to complete the victory. But she finished in a hurry, serving out the final game at love with the help of consecutive aces.

Ranked No. 1, 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.

"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."

Earlier, No. 12 Ana Ivanovic advanced to the fourth round by beating No. 20 Flavia Pennetta 6-4, 6-3.

Ivanovic improved to 5-1 this year against top-20 players.

Angelique Kerber, seeded No. 5, defeated Tsvetana Pironkova 6-0, 6-2, and No. 8 Petra Kvitova beat qualifier Donna Vekic 6-3, 6-4.

No. 14 Sabine Lisicki withdrew because of the flu, giving No. 19 Kirsten Flipkens a walkover. No. 23 Ekaterina Makarova beat No. 9 Sara Errani 6-3, 2-6, 6-4.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.