Five-time champion Williams saw off the worst of the searing, once-in-a-century conditions that scorched Melbourne for four straight days, beating Daniela Hantuchova 6-3, 6-3 on Friday.
Melbourne Park didn’t quite reach the forecast peak of 44 Celsius (111 Fahrenheit) — it did get to 43 C (109 F) — that had some players complaining about “inhumane” conditions.
Williams has never been one to be seriously affected by the heat, but even she had to admit she was looking forward to the cooler conditions expected from Saturday. She also admitted to a little bit of relief after an injury to her sister, Venus, meant they had to withdraw from the doubles.
Djokovic used to struggle in the heat, but has grown accustomed to it with three consecutive Australian titles. He’s aiming to be the first man in the Open era to win four in a row, and thinks he’s getting there.
He benefited from the cool change that swept in late Friday before his 6-3, 6-3, 7-5 win over Denis Istomin. He wrapped it up at 12:10 a.m., and thanked the crowd — including new coach Boris Becker — for staying past midnight.
The only time he was broken was serving for the match — he was clearly irritated but quickly recovered and finished it off two games later.
“As the tournament progresses, I play better and better,” Djokovic said.
He has won 24 consecutive matches at Melbourne Park. It’s not in the league of Roger Federer’s reign at Wimbledon, but he is in contention to be the first man in the Open era to win four consecutive Australian titles.
“Well, if I can compare myself to Roger’s success in Wimbledon, that’s definitely a compliment,” he said. “There’s still a lot more years to come from me, a lot more to prove.
“This is definitely one of my ...best Grand Slams by far. Results are showing that.”
Djokovic’s overall winning streak stands at 27 matches — he hasn’t lost since the U.S. Open final last September, when he was beaten by a resurgent Rafael Nadal. He subsequently lost his No. 1 ranking to Nadal, despite winning four straight tournaments at the end of 2013.
The other active major winners are either on the opposite side — Nadal, Andy Murray and Roger Federer play their third-round matches Saturday — or out of the competition. No. 5 Juan Martin del Potro, the 2009 U.S. Open champion, was the biggest casualty of the second round.
Of the contenders on Djokovic’s side, third-seeded David Ferrer beat No. 29 Jeremy Chardy 6-2, 7-6 (5), 6-2 and No. 7 Tomas Berdych defeated Bosnian qualifier Damir Dzumhur 6-4, 6-2, 6-2.
Two-time defending women’s champion Victoria Azarenka has a Saturday night match, with No. 3-seeded Maria Sharapova opening play on day six against Alize Cornet. Both advanced before the Extreme Heat Policy was imposed on Thursday, with Cornet sobbing as she described the conditions as being like “an oven,” and Sharapova surviving 3 1/2 hours on court.
Lucky for them, the weather forecast this week is much cooler, with showers.
Williams will set another record when she plays former No. 1-ranked Ana Ivanovic on Sunday — her 70th main draw match at Melbourne Park will be the most by any woman in the Open era.
Ivanovic had a 6-7 (8), 6-4, 6-2 win over 2011 U.S. Open champion and local favorite Sam Stosur, while two-time finalist Li Na beat No. 26-seeded Lucie Safarova 1-6, 7-6 (2), 6-3.
“Serena is on top of the game for so long now. You know, she’s someone we admire actually,” Ivanovic said. “It’s going to be very tough task, but I look forward to that challenge.”
Williams’ win over Hantuchova was her 61st at the Australian Open, surpassing Margaret Court’s mark of 60.
Her focus, though, is clearly the four more wins it will take to deliver an 18th major title. She barely gave her latest record a thought in her post-match news conference Friday.
Asked if she recalled a particular highlight at Melbourne Park, Williams smiled, momentarily paused, and said: “For sure all the finals I was able to win.”
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