PARIS (Reuters) - Serena Williams’s survival instincts dug her out of trouble against a familiar foe on Saturday after Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray slapped down pesky Australian upstarts on day seven of the French Open.
With the sun sinking behind Court Philippe Chatrier, world number one Williams swaggered out to face Victoria Azarenka of Belarus — a heavyweight clash befitting a final.
Only a place in the last 16 was at stake this time, however, and it looked as though double Australian Open champion Azarenka, seeded 27 as she journeys back to the top after foot surgery, would be back for the second week.
She led by a set and 4-2 but succumbed as Williams belatedly rediscovered her firepower to win 3-6 6-4 6-2.
An intense duel was not without controversy too, with Azarenka furious after being forced to replay a point after she believed she had saved a fourth set point in the second set.
“That call was bullshit and everybody knows it,” Azarenka told reporters. “But Serena is a great champion. She knows how to turn it up sometimes.”
It was hard not to feel for Azarenka who recently lost to Williams in Madrid having had three match points, but the American was magnificent when the chips were down.
From 2-0 down in the decider, the 33-year-old launched a fusillade of winners to take the last six games of the match.
“I was just really down and out in that match, and I just feel like I just really zeroed in, I really wanted to win that,” 19-times grand slam champion Williams, who next faces compatriot Sloane Stephens, said.
Defending men’s champion Rafa Nadal showed further signs that he is getting his old magic back with a commanding 6-1 6-3 6-2 win over lightweight Russian Andrey Kuznetsov to move ominously into the fourth round.
Should he beat Jack Sock, the last surviving American, and Djokovic overcomes home hope Richard Gasquet, then a repeat of the final in two of the last three years will be played out in the last eight.
Australians Thanasi Kokkinakis, 19, and Nick Kyrgios, 20, are touted as the leaders of a brash new generation that also includes 18-year-old Croatian Borna Coric who lost to Sock.
With their funky clothes and explosive games they both have box-office appeal but brash raw talent is no replacement for the experience of years spent near the top.
Djokovic, bidding for his maiden French Open title, hurtled on with an immaculate 6-4 6-4 6-4 defeat of 19-year-old wildcard Kokkinakis — a break of serve in each set sufficient for the Serb who, like Nadal, is yet to drop a set.
“Tennis needs players like Thanasi, who is a teenager, but still able to come out on center court and play with courage and play with power and belief,” top seed Djokovic said.
Murray said similar things about Kyrgios who produced a few fireworks and occasionally turned the air blue.
But for every thunderous winner from the 29th seed a crass error was close by and, hampered by a sore elbow that slowed his serve, Kyrgios flattered to deceive.
Murray won 6-4 6-2 6-3 to set up a meeting with Jeremy Chardy, one of five Frenchmen into the last 16 which equals the hosts’ best showing in the professional era.
“You have to expect the unexpected against him,” Murray, who has now won 13 consecutive claycourt matches, said.
“You just have to be kind of on your toes at all times and just try to be ready for something different.”
Kyrgios, dressed in shocking pink and blue and donning a baseball cap, obliged, winning one point with a lob executed from between his legs that had the crowd roaring its approval.
Gasquet produced the biggest cheers of the day when he beat South African Kevin Anderson in five sets, while Spain’s seventh seed David Ferrer also needed five to beat Italy’s Simone Bolelli, winning the last two sets 6-0 6-1.
Editing by Ed Osmond