Serena loves the All England Club

Posted: Wednesday, June 23, 2004

WIMBLEDON, England Serena Williams loves Wimbledon. Marat Safin hates it.

She walked out on Centre Court with a diva's confidence Tuesday and extended her winning streak to 15 matches at the All England Club. He gave up during another early loss and says he's finished trying to do well here.

Enjoying the oomph her serves and other strokes gain on grass, Williams opened her bid for a third straight title by beating Zheng Jie of China 6-3, 6-1.

''The most special thing is coming back as champ,'' said Williams, who smacked six aces at up to 121 mph and saved all 10 break points she faced. ''Win, lose or draw, it's a great feeling to be defending champion at Wimbledon. I don't get that feeling at any other Grand Slam.''

Safin never quite feels as frustrated at other majors, and that's saying a lot when it comes to a player known for losing his cool.

The 2000 U.S. Open champion self-destructed as only he can in a 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 7-6 (1) exit against fellow Russian Dmitry Tursunov, who moved to the United States when he was 12 and is applying for U.S. citizenship.

Safin was two points from leading 2-0 in sets, but he fell apart with double-faults and halfhearted effort, watching shots fly past during the final points of his first opening-round defeat at a Slam since the 2000 Australian Open.

With former Russian President Boris Yeltsin in the stands, No. 19 Safin's displays of disgust included cursing at the chair umpire, muttering to himself, smashing rackets and spitting.

''I don't like to play on this surface. I cannot move there. Every time, I don't know how it's going to bounce. It's really a nightmare for me,'' Safin said.

All Grand Slam tournaments are grinds, but Wimbledon's rain can make it even tougher. Andy Roddick slipped and fell on wet turf while charging to the net behind a serve on the last point played in his first-round match against Wang Yeu-tzuoo. They'll resume Wednesday at 4-2 in the first set.

Play was halted at 5:15 p.m., and court covers were removed then replaced twice, before All England Club Chief Executive Christopher Gorringe's voice could be heard at 7 p.m. over loudspeakers across the grounds, conceding, ''Play will be abandoned.''

French Open runner-up Guillermo Coria was two points from victory against Wesley Moodie in the fifth set of a match that started Monday and is now headed for its third day. Overall Tuesday, 43 scheduled matches were completed, 14 were suspended, and 31 never started.

With its grass, rain and strict rules about proper attire, the tournament formally known as The Lawn Tennis Championships tends to elicit strong feelings in players.

Andre Agassi thought little of the tournament early in his career, skipping it three straight years, then won it in 1992 and changed his tune. Pete Sampras won seven titles and compared Centre Court with Mecca. Ivan Lendl's fruitless pursuit of the title took on the feel of a Greek tragedy.

Former No. 1 players Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario and Marcelo Rios derided the surface as being for cows. Three-time French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten stayed away three of the past four seasons.

But the All England Club brings out the best in players such as No. 5 Tim Henman, a four-time semifinalist. He twice was a point from trailing by two sets before coming back to beat Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo of Spain 4-6, 7-6 (6), 6-4, 6-2.

Or No. 11 Mark Philippoussis, an unseeded finalist last year. He pounded 22 aces to overcome 11 double-faults and eliminate Christophe Rochus of Belgium 6-3, 6-4, 6-2, his first victory in individual tournament play since January.

And it can bring out the worst, too. French Open finalist Elena Dementieva had 11 double-faults giving her 78 over eight matches in a 6-4, 1-6, 6-4 loss to Sandra Kleinova, who entered with an 0-6 record at Wimbledon.

Other seeded losers: No. 8 Svetlana Kuznetsova, No. 17 Chanda Rubin, No. 30 Eleni Daniilidou, No. 16 Jiri Novak, No. 23 Max Mirnyi and No. 28 Ivan Ljubicic, beaten 5-7, 7-6 (5), 7-5, 6-2 by Wayne Ferreira, who's playing in a record 55th straight major.

''Players have been congratulating me and saying that they think it's a great thing. A lot of them have thought about how long it would take them to get to this, and they laugh a lot,'' said Ferreira, 32.

''They know how difficult it is to stay healthy for this amount of time.''

Williams knows all about that, too.

Three weeks after last year's Wimbledon final, she had left knee surgery and missed eight months of her day job. There was time for acting and clothes designing, however.

She looked shaky in her Slam return at the French Open, losing to Jennifer Capriati in the quarterfinals. But Wimbledon changes everything for Williams.

''When I'm on the set of a movie, it's exciting. I love it. I love being there. When I'm designing a dress, an outfit, I'm really into that,'' said Williams, who's ranked 10th but seeded first. ''But it just doesn't beat walking out onto Centre Court at Wimbledon.''

Safin couldn't disagree more. He's only once been a quarterfinalist, and otherwise is 2-4 at Wimbledon. He won the U.S. Open, reached two Australian Open finals, and made the French Open semifinals.

''I love tennis,'' he said. ''I just don't like grass.''



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