KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. – Weary winner Venus Williams stood near the net swatting souvenir balls to cheering fans, but a marathon match had taken its toll, and one attempt didn't even reach the stands.
Williams had already expended all of her energy, erasing a match point and outlasting Aleksandra Wozniak 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (5) in Sunday's third round at the Sony Ericsson Open.
Her career comeback now includes a comeback. Williams is playing in her first tournament since withdrawing from the U.S. Open last August after being diagnosed with a fatigue-causing autoimmune disease.
The three-set victory was her second in less than 48 hours, and took nearly three hours.
"I just kept coming back," Williams said. "I tried not to let anything discourage me."
Wozniak served for the match at 5-4 in the final set, but dumped a forehand in the net when she had a match point. Talking later about the situation, Williams claimed to be unaware Wozniak had been so close to victory.
"She had match point?" Williams said. "Oh no. Thank God I'm oblivious to the score a lot of times."
The tiebreaker swung Williams' way when she smacked an overhead that clipped the net cord before landing softly for a winner and a 4-2 lead. On the final point, she somehow found the strength to whack a 119-mph service winner.
"That's the serve I wanted — just a big one to hopefully force the issue," Williams said. "Thank God it went in. Wow."
She'll need to recover quickly for a fourth-round match Monday night against No. 15-seeded Ana Ivanovic, who beat No. 20 Daniela Hantuchova 6-2, 7-6 (2).
No. 4-seeded Andy Murray, the 2009 champion, advanced in a walkover when Milos Raonic withdrew because of a sprained right ankle. Raonic said he doesn't believe the injury is serious.
Grigor Dimitrov advanced by upsetting No. 7 Tomas Berdych 6-3, 2-6, 6-4. The 20-year-old Dimitrov improved to 1-9 against top 10 players.
No. 9 Janko Tipsarevic beat No. 18 Alexandr Dolgopolov 6-4, 5-7, 6-2.
In other women's play, wild card Garbine Muguruza Blanco eliminated No. 24 Flavia Pennetta 6-2, 1-6, 7-6 (6). No. 7 Marion Bartoli eliminated Simona Halep 6-4, 7-6, (6).
On a sweltering spring afternoon, Williams looked lethargic at the outset, struggled with an erratic forehand and kept falling behind. She played with straps on her right ankle and right calf, and often seemed a step late to the ball.
"Wake up, Venus!" a fan shouted in the second set. Younger sister Serena, who plays her fourth-round match Monday, watched solemnly from the club section of the stadium.
"I didn't feel that great, and I was kind of starting to panic," Venus said. "I needed to calm down and try to figure out a strategy that was going to work a little better than what I was doing at the moment."
She managed to pull even after two sets, then fell behind 4-2 in the third set and looked increasingly weary. During one changeover she hung her head for 15 seconds before slowly lifting it to take sips from two drink bottles.
Wozniak looked fresher, but the wild card from Canada couldn't serve out the match. Instead, the opportunity unnerved her. She hit consecutive double-faults and committed unforced errors on the game's final three points, which made it 5-all.
Play continued for another half hour before another match point, this one held by Williams. After her service winner clinched the victory, she managed to raise both fists and muster a smile.
A former No. 1 and seven-time Grand Slam singles champion, Williams is ranked No. 134 and needed a wild card to enter the tournament. She's trying to improve her ranking enough in the coming weeks to qualify for the London Olympics.
"Whenever things look bleak, I think about the Olympics," Williams said. "That keeps me motivated."