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Serena wins despite racist taunts

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MIAMI, Florida (Reuters) -- America's Serena Williams was the target of a racist heckler at the Sony Ericsson Open on Monday, but held her nerve to record a third round victory over Czech Lucie Safarova.

Late in her 6-3 6-4 win over Safarova, the three-times champion in Miami complained to chair umpire Joan Vornbaum about the verbal abuse being directed at her by a spectator, who she said had been harassing her the entire match.

The WTA confirmed the spectator was removed by security staff and turned over to Miami Dade police.

"The guy said, 'Hit the net like a Negro would'," Williams told reporters.

"I was shocked. I couldn't believe it. I had to do a double take. I think I hit a double fault at that point.

"Who says these things outside of first grade. At a professional venue you don't do that. It was shocking, I couldn't believe he would stoop to that level.

Playing in her first event since winning the Australian Open in January, Williams said she had tried to ignore the heckling but finally had enough when the taunts became racist. "I really should have said something sooner," she added. "Even the people out there were pointing to who he was.

"The guy was saying things that shouldn't have been said. It was derogatory. Then every time I missed a shot or serve, he would say, 'That's the way to do it'.

"It was outrageous. I couldn't believe what he said."

It is not the first time Williams has been the target of hecklers and racist taunts.

At Indian Wells in 2001, Serena and her sister Venus were loudly jeered and verbally abused when Venus withdrew from a semifinal match between the pair.

Their father, Richard, maintains that the boos were racially-motivated and the sisters have boycotted the Masters Series event ever since.

Li Na reaches quarterfinals

Meanwhile, China's Li Na stunned Belgian fourth seed Kim Clijsters 4-6 6-4 6-2 to reach the quarterfinals.

Li, ranked 17th, rallied to oust the 2005 champion and book a date in the final eight against Russia's Anna Chakvetadze, who defeated Italy's Maria Santangelo 6-1 7-5.

Clijsters, whose only Grand Slam singles triumph came at the 2005 US Open, said she was nagged by back discomfort and unable to play at her best.

"I definitely didn't," she said. "I just have to kind of focus, make sure that I have my practice time at home and then try to peak at tournaments. It's not easy because I'm physically just not capable of playing a lot of matches anymore in a row."

Clijsters said her Chinese rival, the top tennis medal hope for the 2008 Olympics host nation, has the potential to crack the WTA's top 10.

"I do believe that she's definitely a top-10 player. I've always had really tough matches against her," Clijsters said.

"The last two or three times I played her, she missed a couple of important points. I think that's where maybe she still gets a little bit nervous.

"But it's just a matter for her to get through one of those big ones. Then I think the confidence will automatically rise and she'll be up there."

Clijsters' Belgian compatriot Justine Henin, the second seed behind Russian Maria Sharapova, defeated Russia's Vera Zvonareva 6-3 6-2 to set a quarterfinal date with Russian sixth seed Nadia Petrova -- who rallied to defeat compatriot Dinara Safina 3-6 6-2 6-4.

"I had an opportunity to raise my level and that's what I did," Henin said. "The way the match happened, I'm very happy to win in two sets like that."


Serena returns to Safarova during day six at the 2007 Sony Ericsson Open.

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