PARIS Venus Williams' play was so erratic, Mom sat up and took notice.
Williams hit forehands long, short and wide. Backhands, too. And her serving? Don't ask. It was not the sort of performance she usually delivers at majors unless the opponent is her sibling, that is.
Instead, it was a player with a losing record and ranked 110th who briefly threatened the run of Sister Slams on Thursday in the French Open's second round. Williams got her act together in time to beat Evie Dominikovic 6-3, 4-6, 6-2.
''I can't stay at that level and still continue to do as well as I'd like to at this tournament,'' said Williams, seeded third. ''I've got to find my balance and find it soon.''
She didn't look like a player ready to retake the No. 1 ranking from younger sister Serena. Dominikovic, who won two games against Serena at Wimbledon last year, offered a comparison.
''I was happy I was playing Venus and not Serena,'' she said. ''Serena's a lot better and doesn't miss as much. Venus is more erratic.''
Three top women hoping to prevent a fifth consecutive all-Williams Grand Slam final won Thursday in straight sets: Kim Clijsters, Jennifer Capriati and Lindsay Davenport.
Nine U.S. women reached the third round, but just two of 13 American men did: Andre Agassi and Vince Spadea, who's never won a tournament. Two U.S. men exited, with No. 24 James Blake eliminated by Ivan Ljubicic in a match suspended the night before because of darkness. Todd Martin lost to No. 25 Tim Henman.
There's a trend, it seems. At last year's Wimbledon, there were no U.S. men in the fourth round for the first time in 80 years.
''We've got a young batch of players that are starting to run into a bit of a speed bump,'' said Martin, who's 32. ''This period of time is going to be a big challenge for our younger players.''
Blake pointed out that part of the problem at Roland Garros is the red clay, a surface that isn't common in the United States.
''We don't grow up on the stuff. The French, the Spanish, the South Americans play on it from very early on,'' he said. ''The guys from California they don't even know what a clay court looks like.''
Nearly a third of Thursday's winners were Spanish: defending champion Albert Costa, 2002 runner-up Juan Carlos Ferrero, Felix Mantilla, Tommy Robredo and Fernando Vincente.
Three-time French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten, a Brazilian, eliminated Hicham Arazi 6-1, 6-0, 6-1.
But top-seeded Lleyton Hewitt had another long day, needing more than 3 hours to get past Nikolay Davydenko, then conceding, ''I'm not one of the big favorites.'' He plays Robredo next and would love to see 112 unforced errors, Davydenko's total.
Williams compiled 55 mistakes through two sets and finished with 68. She had seven double faults and was broken five times, including to end the second set.
To that point, her mother, Oracene Price, had been watching from the guest box with her chin on her hand. She suddenly straightened up to watch the third set, as if she were thinking, ''Well, maybe I ought to be concerned.''
Her daughter was. After closing one game with an errant backhand, Williams tapped her racket against her head several times about the biggest display of emotion she allows.
She arrived in Paris rusty, having last played May 4, when she didn't finish a match because of a stomach muscle injury.
Still, Williams plays big points at big tournaments brilliantly, which is why she owns four major titles. Set aside losses to Serena in the past four finals, and Williams is 44-1 at Slams since Wimbledon in 2001.
Williams won Thursday because she kept conjuring up groundstroke winners, 31 in all.
''She hit one volley, and I thought, 'Whoa, that's amazing!''' said Dominikovic, 4-6 this year and not even listed in the WTA Tour media guide.
One particularly strong backhand knocked the racket out of Dominikovic's hand and into a courtside advertising sign with a ''Clunk!''
More commonly, players throw rackets in anger. Wimbledon finalist David Nalbandian did so a few times during his loss to French qualifier Nicolas Coutelot and afterward, it seemed fists would fly.
When Nalbandian bounced his racket after losing a point, Coutelot complained loudly to the umpire that a penalty should be assessed. After the match, Nalbandian told Coutelot he shouldn't have tried to steal a point.
The discussion grew heated, with both players gesticulating.
Coutelot said: ''He told me, 'Come on, don't ask the chair umpire to give a warning. I'm your friend.'''
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