Tuesday, January 14, 2003

Serena survives first-round scare

The Associated Press

MELBOURNE, Australia - Serena Williams' bid for her fourth straight Grand Slam title is alive - barely. Williams survived a second-set tiebreaker and finally prevailed 3-6, 7-6 (5), 7-5 over 56th-ranked Emilie Loit of France on Tuesday in the first round of the Australian Open.

"I don't think I was playing nearly at 100 percent," Williams said. "I think I was a bit lucky to pull that through. I think it was a little bit of the nerves. I had never lost in the first round of a Grand Slam."

Williams overcame 55 unforced errors. The top-ranked woman in the world had been almost unbeatable in winning the French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open last year - she did not lose even a set in taking those last two championships.

But with her mother watching from the stands, Williams almost was chased from the only Grand Slam event she's never won.

The Australian Open has been troublesome in the past for both Williams sisters. Serena never has advanced past the quarterfinals and Venus was a semifinalist once, in 2001.

Holding all four Grand Slam titles at once last was accomplished Steffi Graf, who added the 1994 Australian title to her victories in the other majors in 1993.

Graf also is one of only three women with a true Grand Slam. She did that in 1988, following Maureen Connolly in 1953 and Margaret Court in 1970.

A day earlier, Jennifer Capriati became the first women's Australian Open defending champion to lose in the first round in the Open era. Capriati, seeded third, lost 2-6, 7-6 (6), 6-4 to 90th-ranked Marlene Weingartner of Germany.

Loit, 23, has never won a singles title on the WTA Tour. Her best showing in a major came at the 1999 Australian Open, when she beat ninth-seeded Conchita Martinez to advance to the fourth round.

"It was definitely a big sigh," Williams said after Loit netted an inside-out forehand passing shot on the third match point. "I have to take a breath right now."

Loit, who thought her left-handed shots might bother Williams, added: "I was feeling so good on the court, I thought anything could happen."

Loit said the stress she was feeling before the match, which caused a largely sleepless night, changed to irritation over what she perceived as a sneer by Williams when Loit won the toss and chose to receive.

"Later on in the match, when I saw her getting irritated and losing it a bit, I really enjoyed that," Loit said. "In the end, she was very pleasant. She said the usual kind of things like 'good match."'

Williams won her first game, but then quickly fell behind with her wild shots.

She stared into the stands with a look on her face that said "Help!" and at one point started to throw down her racket, but caught herself. She received a warning in the second set for an audible obscenity.

Williams faced her biggest jam in the second set when Loit took a 6-5 lead. Williams evened the set, then took a 5-1 lead in the tiebreaker.

Loit rebounded to 5-4 thanks to two Williams errors and a backhand winner down the line. Williams reached match point with an ace, followed with a double fault, but won the set when Loit hit a forehand long.

Williams fell behind a break of serve at 3-2 in the third set.

She broke right back to tie it and, after squandering two match points at 5-4, Williams went on to win.

Earlier in the day, Kim Clijsters, who beat both Williams sisters two months ago, surged into the second round with a 6-2, 6-1 victory over Samantha Reeves.

Clijsters needed just 62 minutes to win with her heavy groundstrokes, ending when Reeves hit a serve return into the net.

In other women's matches, No. 10 Chanda Rubin overcame Hungarian Melinda Czink 6-4, 7-5; Mary Pierce, winner of the 1995 Australian Open and 2000 French, beat Austria's Patricia Wartusch 6-1, 6-4, and American Amy Frazier needed only 43 minutes to oust Spain's Conchita Martinez Granados.

On the men's side, No. 3 Marat Safin, last year's runner-up, beat Raemon Sluiter 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, and Gustavo Kuerten, a three-time French Open champion who now is seeded 30th, beat Morocco's Hicham Arazi 6-4, 7-6 (8), 6-3.

Sixth-seeded Roger Federer of Switzerland defeated Flavio Saretta of Brazil 7-6 (4), 7-5, 6-3 while Wimbledon runner-up David Nalbandian moved quickly into the second round when France's Jerome Golmard quit after three sets with a back injury.

Nalbandian led 3-6, 6-3, 6-1 before the withdrawal by Golmard, who also hurt his back in a tournament in India at the end of last year.

No. 13 Fernando Gonzalez, who moved up 117 places in the rankings last year, advanced with a 6-2, 3-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory over France's Julien Varlet.

Idleness costly for Capriati
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