Defending champion Victoria Azarenka struggled to hold off injured American Jamie Hampton 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 on Saturday before advancing to the fourth round of the Australian Open.
Hampton, who needed a medical timeout for a lower back problem before she served out the second set and winced in pain, frequently on the verge of tears, throughout the third, still managed to hit 41 winners to keep the top-ranked Azarenka under pressure.
Azarenka appeared frustrated at times, but overcame an early break and fended off triple break point in the seventh game of the deciding set before clinching the match in 2 hours, nine minutes.
The Belarusian didn't' help herself with six double-faults and 28 unforced errors, but was often pushed the limit by a rival who was swinging hard at every opportunity.
"She played incredible, went for every single shot. I felt it was touching every single line" Azarenka said. "She took a medical timeout but she rips winners all over the place and I was like, 'Can I have a back problem?' I'm feeling great, but I'm missing every shot."
After wasting two set points on Azarenka's serve late in the second set, Hampton had to leave the court for nine minutes to have treatment on her back. Azarenka practiced her backhands and serve while Hampton was in the locker room, but the break didn't help her immediately. Hampton returned and held in the next game and needed more treatment in the break at the end of the set.
Even with the pain of two herniated discs, the 23-year-old Hampton, from Auburn, Alabama, went down swinging — making 47 unforced errors to go with the winners that caught Azarenka off guard and had her asking, loudly at one point, what she could do to counter them.
Sensing an upset, and stirred by the obvious pain, the crowd on Rod Laver Arena got right behind the No. 63-ranked Hampton, who had never gone past the second round at a major.
Azarenka had her share of supporters in the stands, too, including friend and musician RedFoo who was wearing a shirt a pink shit emblazoned with "We Go Hard" across the front.
Azarenka's potential semifinal rival, Serena Williams, had the next match on Rod Laver Arena against Ayumi Morita of Japan. Williams is on a roll, having won the last two majors and warming up for the Australian Open with a title earlier in the month at the Brisbane International.
No. 14 Maria Kirilenko of Russia beat No. 20 Yanina Wickmayer 7-6 (4), 6-3 and awaits the winner of the Williams-Morita match in the fourth round.
In other early matches Saturday, two-time major winner Svetlana Kuznetsova advanced with a 6-2, 4-6, 6-3 win over Spain's Carla Suarez.
On Friday night, Maria Sharapova celebrated with extra exuberance after her 6-1, 6-3 win over Venus Williams, her first victory over the seven-time major winner in a Grand Slam.
"I was just really pumped," she said. "Why shouldn't I be?"
After back-to-back 6-0, 6-0 wins in the first two rounds — the first time that happened at major since 1985 — Sharapova has conceded the fewest number of games en route to the fourth round at the Australian Open since Steffi Graf did so 24 years ago. Graf also lost only four games in her first three matches on her way to the second of her three consecutive titles in Melbourne.
On the men's side, top-ranked Novak Djokovic took another step closer to a third consecutive Australian title, defeating Radek Stepanek 6-4, 6-3, 7-5 in the third round.
His victory came on the same day Lance Armstrong admitted during a television interview with Oprah Winfrey that he used banned drugs to win his seven Tour de France titles. Djokovic, a lifetime cycling fan, said at his post-match news conference that it was "a disgrace for the sport to have an athlete like this."
"He cheated the sport," Djokovic said. "He cheated many people around the world with his career, with his life story."