| Lleyton Hewitt in action against Radek Stepanek of the Czech Republic in the third-round match at the Australian Open in Melbourne Saturday. Hewitt won 6-3, 6-2, 6-0. (AFP)
Melbourne, Jan. 18 (AFP): Lleyton Hewitt moved closer to becoming the first home-grown Australian Open champion for 27 years on Saturday as girlfriend Kim Clijsters stayed on course for a showdown with Serena Williams.
World number one Hewitt equalled his best-ever performance at the Australian Open after trouncing Czech Radek Stepanek 6-3, 6-2, 6-0 in just 90 minutes at the Rod Laver Arena.
The victory puts the top-seeded Hewitt into the last 16 for only the second time in seven attempts. He faces 18th seeded Moroccan Younes el Aynaoui in Monday’s fourth round.
The 21-year-old’s romp came after his 74-minute straight sets victory over compatriot Todd Larkham in the second round and his toughest match yet in the opening round when he edged out Swedish qualifier Magnus Larsson in five sets.
“I started a bit rusty tonight, but I got better during the match,” Hewitt said.
“It’s only the third round and I didn’t want to play my best tennis this early, but I’m now in the second week of the tournament.
“I still have plenty to do to get to the final and it’s a big relief to get to the fourth round after bombing out in the first round last year.”
Hewitt’s chances of reaching next Sunday’s final received a boost earlier in the day when Russian third seed Marat Safin was forced to withdraw from the tournament with a wrist injury.
Safin blamed too many tournaments on the crowded tennis calendar after failing to recover from torn left wrist ligaments in time for his meeting with Rainer Schuettler of Germany.
The Russian — who had also withdrawn with a shoulder injury from last week’s Sydney International — said the grind of playing week-in, week-out had taken its toll.
“Everybody is getting injured and tennis is becoming too physical,” he said. Safin’s withdrawal means Schuettler advances to a last 16 meeting with James Blake, the American 23rd seed having too much class for Spaniard Alberto Martin in his third round match, winning 6-3, 4-6, 6-2, 6-2.
Swiss star Roger Federer worked his way into the second week to set up a revenge match with Argentina’s David Nalbandian in the fourth round.
Sixth seed Federer accounted for Swedish qualifier Andreas Vinciguerra 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 in a little over an hour-and-a-half on the Vodafone Arena to complete a satisfactory first week in which he hasn’t dropped a set.
Federer faces his first crunch match of the Open on Monday against Wimbledon finalist and tenth seed Nalbandian in the fourth round.
The Argentinian got a saloon passage into the fourth round when Xavier Malisse retired during their match with an arm injury. Nalbandian was leading 4-6, 6-2, 6-0, 3-0 when the Belgian 20th seed called a halt.
In the women’s draw, world number one Serena Williams and Belgian fourth seed Clijsters enjoyed easy wins to romp into the last 16, both recording victories inside an hour to ensure their presence in week two.
Williams overwhelmed Thailand’s 26th seed Tamarine Tanasugarn with an exhibition of power tennis on her way to a 6-1, 6-1 victory in just 46 minutes.
Tamarine’s exit left Asia without a representative in the final rounds of the men’s and women’s singles draws.
Clijsters needed slightly longer against Belarus’ Tatiana Poutchek, but was just as emphatic in a 6-2, 6-1 55-minute workout.
Williams’ win sets her up for a fourth round meeting with Greece’s Eleni Daniilidou, who defeated French 16th seed Nathalie Dechy 6-4, 6-3.
The American superstar, who is chasing a ‘Serena Slam’ here after victories at Roland Garros, Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows last season, said afterwards she believed big sister Venus was anxious to dethrone her.
“She’s never sat down and told me, ‘Serena, I’m going to take no.1 away from you,” Williams said. “But I’m sure that’s what she wants to do.
“She’s working hard, she’s playing really well. She is just on a different level from a lot of the girls and everyone else — including me sometimes.”
Clijsters had been taken to three sets by Poutchek at the French Open last year and was in no mood for a repeat of that gruelling battle on Saturday. She blitzed her opponent with a succession of laser-guided baseline winners to complete an easy victory.
“It was a lot better than at the French,” Clijsters said. “I was really ready for revenge.” Clijsters now faces Amanda Coetzer of South Africa on Monday. Coetzer defeated Israeli Anna Pistolesi in straight sets, 6-0 6-2.
Blake for President'
Blake could one day be holding court at the White House, according to Serena.
World No. 1 Serena believes Blake has a great future in politics when he decides to hang up his racquet.
“He’s just the epitome of a gentleman, just a very kind individual. He has a good heart, and his parents are very nice as well. I think he could be a politician one day,” she quipped.
“He could definitely run for state governor and then President eventually, because he says all the right things.”
Blake sported his new revealing outfit on centre court for the first time on Saturday and won a raft of new female fans. But nobody was more thrilled to see Blake’s new look than his number one admirer Serena.
Blake was voted “sexiest athlete alive” by America’s People magazine last year.