MELBOURNE, Australia -- Soaked with sweat and clinging desperately for survival, Maria Sharapova was only a point from victory when Australian Open organizers finally decided the searing heat was extreme enough to suspend matches.
The four-time major winner was serving at 5-4 in the third set, 2 hours and 38 minutes into her second-round match against No. 44-ranked Karin Knapp on Thursday. But the reprieve wouldn't apply to the pair on Rod Laver Arena, because the extreme heat policy kicks in only at the end of sets in progress. It took another 50 minutes before Sharapova converted her fourth match point for a grueling 6-3, 4-6, 10-8 win.
The temperature was 102 degrees when Sharapova's match started just after 11 a.m. local time and increased to almost 109 degrees by the time she finished during the third straight day of a heat wave in sweltering Melbourne. At 3 hours and 28 minutes, it was the longest women's match so far in the tournament.
"I wanted this match," Sharapova said. "I didn't play my best tennis; I didn't do many things well ... (but) I got through it, and sometimes that's what's important.
"When you win match point, you get off the court, no matter how you feel and how tough it was. ... I love these moments."
All matches on outside courts were suspended for more than four hours until temperatures dropped. Problems with the weather didn't end after the temperatures subsided -- thunderstorms, lightning and rain showers hit Melbourne Park during the early evening, forcing another suspension of play for matches on the outer courts.
That didn't affect night matches scheduled at Rod Laver Arena under the roof. Defending champion Victoria Azarenka beat Barbora Zahlavova Strycova 6-1, 6-4.
The 13th-seeded Stephens, who beat Serena Williams on the way to the semifinals last year, came back after dropping the first set to capture seven straight games and take a 3-0 lead in the third set before play was suspended.
When the players returned to the court, Tomljanonvic reeled off five straight games and was serving for the match at 5-4 when she double-faulted to allow Stephens to break back and eventually close out the match.
Earlier, at the height of the heat, Sharapova wasted three match points on serve in the 10th game of the third set, and then had to save break points and serve to stay in the match. She earned a crucial break seven games later, but it wasn't a simple matter of serving out.
Three double-faults in the last game -- Sharapova's 10th, 11th and 12th of the match -- gave Knapp another break point and a chance to extend it further. But with a reflex backhand from Sharapova that just caught the line, and two errors from Knapp, it was over.
She hit 34 winners but made 67 unforced errors in an increasingly frustrated push to finish points early.