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Serena survives first round

Posted: Tuesday, January 14, 2003

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, the third-seeded woman, 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 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.''

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 American Samantha Reeves.

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

After a season in which Serena Williams beat elder sister Venus in the championship matches at the French and U.S. Opens and Wimbledon, Clijsters beat Venus in the semifinals and defeated Serena in the final at the WTA Tour Championships in November.

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, playing in her 56th Grand Slam tournament, needed only 43 minutes to oust Spain's Conchita Martinez Granados.

On the men's side, 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.

Capriati, the third-seeded woman, lost about two months after eye surgery that kept her out of the sunlight for two weeks.

''I'm not trying to make excuses, that's for sure,'' Capriati said. ''But I have to say it had a lot to do with my preparation for coming here.''

Capriati's ouster came on a day when Venus Williams and Lindsay Davenport won, as did three-time winner Andre Agassi.

Capriati figures she still needs up to a month to get back in shape after the operation. ''Probably, if I wasn't the defending champion, I wouldn't have shown up,'' she said.

Capriati struggled with her serve but opened a 6-2, 4-2 lead. Then Weingartner began finding the range.

''She was just hitting some great shots,'' Capriati said. ''I just felt the momentum swing, and mentally and physically I wasn't strong enough.''

Weingartner reached match point with a forehand serve return down the line. She then hit deep to the corner, and Capriati sent the ball into the net.

''I think I deserved it,'' Weingartner said. ''I played really well, and I just went for it.''

Weingartner was playing her first match on center court in a Grand Slam tournament.

''I really like this atmosphere,'' she said. ''But I just needed a little bit of time to get into it.''

Last year, Capriati won the Australian Open final in three sets as Martina Hingis wilted in the heat. This time, she gave herself credit ''for being strong enough to just come and give my best and try to fight no matter what happens.''

The last defending men's champion to lose in the first round at the Australian Open was Boris Becker in 1997. Agassi, the 1995, 2000 and 2001 champion, didn't even get to the first round last year. He went home with a wrist injury from a tuneup event.

This time, Agassi scored a 7-5, 6-3, 6-3 victory over Brian Vahaly, a former All-American at Virginia.

''It has, unfortunately, been a lot longer than I wish it was. It was good to get out there again,'' Agassi said.



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