KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. - Needing one point to complete a narrow victory, Serena Williams charged the net and lunged in vain for a shot that sent her sprawling to the concrete.
She froze in an awkward pose, then slowly rose and examined her right hand with a frown. Was she hurt?
“I was angry because I broke my nail,” Williams said with a smile. “I just got a manicure, so I was pretty upset.”
Manicure malfunction notwithstanding, Williams hung on Sunday to beat Elena Likhovtseva 6-1, 4-6, 6-3 in the third round of the Nasdaq-100 Open.
The top-seeded Williams was playing for just the second time in her comeback from an eight-month layoff following knee surgery, and she survived some shaky moments and erratic groundstrokes. She won the first five games but committed 34 unforced errors — plus several foot faults — and needed five match points to secure the victory.
“I never felt as if I was going to lose,” Williams said. “I just felt ... when was I going to win?”
Her path to the final became easier when fourth-seeded Jennifer Capriati lost to No. 25 Eleni Daniilidou, 6-2, 6-4.
“From the beginning I missed some easy shots, and I got negative after that,” Capriati said. She was the runner-up at Key Biscayne each of the past three years, losing in the final to a Williams each time: Serena in 2002 and 2003, and Venus in 2001.
Williams’ next opponent will be 16-year-old Russian Maria Sharapova, who beat No. 13 Anna Smashnova-Pistolesi 7-5, 6-2.
Three-time champion Venus Williams struggled early but played a flawless tiebreaker and beat No. 27 Daniela Hantuchova 7-6 (0), 6-2. Williams, seeded second, could meet her younger sister in the final Saturday.
Also reaching the fourth round were lucky loser Gisela Dulko of Argentina and Jill Craybas of the United States, who upset No. 7 Vera Zvonareva 6-2, 3-6, 6-3.
Williams lost just one game in her opening match Friday, but Likhovtseva had her grunting and resorting to theatrical body language to influence the flight of the ball. Though her errors mounted, Williams kept going for winners and smacked three in the final game.
The tournament is the first for Williams since she won her sixth Grand Slam title at Wimbledon in July. She said she’s excited about her comeback and relieved that her knee feels fine but anticipating a few stumbles.
“If I lose, I’m going to be ready for the next tournament,” Williams said. “This is my first time back, and obviously I’m not in my best form. I’m going to miss some shots, but that’s OK. If I have to miss, I’m going to miss. I’m going to keep going for it.”
Likhovtseva, who beat Williams at the Australian Open four years ago, hurt her chances of another upset with a slow start and 10 double-faults. The last one left the Russian behind 2-0 in the final set, and Williams nursed the lead the rest of the way.
Likhovtseva conceded that nerves affected her down the stretch.
“It’s Serena. It’s center court,” she said. “When you think that you can win, then sometimes it overwhelms you, you know?”
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