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U.S. Open starts with revival theme

Morariu, Davenport, New York enjoy noteworthy starts to tennis tournament

Posted: Tuesday, August 27, 2002

NEW YORK -- The opening day of the U.S. Open was a celebration of comebacks: Corina Morariu's, Lindsay Davenport's, New York's.

Morariu returned to Grand Slam action less than 1 1/2 years after starting treatment for leukemia and did what she could to keep top-seeded Serena Williams off-balance in their first-round match Monday before falling 6-2, 6-3.

''I didn't think that I'd ever be back here,'' a teary Morariu said. ''There are days when you feel so bad, and things get so difficult, that you don't think you'll be able to do the things you used to.''

Davenport, the player many consider the most capable of challenging the Williams sisters' dominance, wasn't given much of a test in her first major tournament match since right knee surgery in January. She beat Eva Dyrberg of Denmark 6-2, 6-1.

The night match between Morariu and 1999 champion Williams was preceded by a ceremony of tribute to the heroes and victims of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 -- two days after the U.S. Open ended.

''This year's Open is special: It's another indication that our city is well on its way to recovering from the tragedy of Sept. 11,'' Mayor Michael Bloomberg said.

For the 24-year-old Morariu, of course, being back on court is a victory in itself. Her father called her a few hours before Monday's match to tell her a bone marrow test showed her cancer is still in remission.

Morariu's face betrayed little when she stepped out for just her second tour singles match in 14 months. But she did unveil a wide smile while the crowd roared as she walked to the changeover chair after breaking Williams' serve in the third game.

''There were definitely a lot of emotions,'' Morariu said. ''When you have a tough time walking up the stairs in your house, it's tough to imagine that you'll be able to play or compete with Serena Williams.''

Morariu wasn't just pleased to be there, however. She wanted to win, and it showed: She slammed a ball off the ground after an unforced error ended the first set, stood with hand on hip after overhitting a sitter, yelled after a poorly hit backhand.

''I really wanted to play well tonight. That was something that was important to me,'' Morariu said. ''But I have to cut myself some slack.''

She even had the French Open and Wimbledon champion in a tad of trouble in the second set, holding a break point with a chance to go up 4-3. But Williams -- who wore a short, skintight black outfit she called her ''catsuit'' -- smacked a runaround forehand winner to erase the threat.

With her father, Richard, watching in the stands, Williams' play didn't sparkle as much as her diamond bracelet and tiara: She made more errors (32) than winners (26). She did have nine aces, some topping 110 mph.

Two-time U.S. Open champion Andre Agassi wrapped up Monday's action in the main stadium by beating Robby Ginepri 6-3, 6-3, 6-3.

Others advancing were fifth-seeded Jelena Dokic, No. 8 Justine Henin, and 2000 semifinalist Elena Dementieva. Men's winners included Agassi, fourth-seeded Yevgeny Kafelnikov, French Open winner Albert Costa, No. 13 Roger Federer, No. 25 James Blake, and Michael Chang.

But 25th-seeded Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, who counts the 1994 Open among her four Grand Slam titles, was knocked out by Marion Bartoli 6-3, 6-1.

And Anna Kournikova had a whopping 40 unforced errors -- nearly one per minute -- in a 6-3, 6-0 loss to Angelique Widjaja of Indonesia. Widjaja didn't have a single forehand or backhand winner.

Davenport, the 1998 Open champion and former No. 1, spent nine weeks on crutches after her operation, then endured months of rehabilitation that included eight hours a day using a machine that repeatedly bent and straightened her right knee.

Asked what it will take to get her game and confidence back to the level that brought her three major titles, including Wimbledon in 1999, Davenport said: ''I don't know if it will take beating a Williams or a very top player to get me going, or if it takes winning some more tournaments. But I'm not there.''

Before Morariu's illness, her highest singles ranking was 29th, and she was No. 1 in doubles for part of 2000. She teamed with Davenport to win the 1999 Wimbledon doubles title, and claimed another Grand Slam trophy at the 2001 Australian Open, in mixed doubles with Ellis Ferreira.

Four months later, in May 2001, she was diagnosed with cancer and went into the hospital for four courses of chemotherapy. Morariu now takes chemotherapy pills daily.

''It was tough for me, physically -- being active all your life and being able to compete at a professional level for so many years, then to have to sit down after walking 20 yards. That gets extremely frustrating,'' Morariu said.

She started hitting balls early in the year, and played her first WTA Tour singles match this month in Los Angeles.

''It takes a lot of courage and character to do what she's done,'' said Williams, who called Morariu a few times during her recovery.

Last year, Morariu traveled to New York for the Open to spend time with friends before returning to Boca Raton, Fla., for another round of chemotherapy. She was pale and covered her bald head with a scarf.

On Monday, her thick, curly brown hair was soaked with sweat as she slugged the ball for more than an hour with the world's top-ranked player.

''If you look at her body now, she looks just as strong as before she left,'' Davenport said. ''I remember her being here at the Open last year, and she had no muscle, no hair, was very frail. You see her now -- it almost seems like that didn't really happen to her.''

Notes: The ''Salute to Heroes'' ceremony included a procession with a U.S. flag recovered from the World Financial Center and raised by Marines in Afghanistan. The flag will fly over Arthur Ashe Stadium for the tournament's two weeks. ... Serena Williams' next opponent is Dinara Safina, the 16-year-old sister of 2000 Open champion Marat Safin. ... U.S. women went 3-11 Monday, with former Wimbledon semifinalist Alexandra Stevenson among the losers.



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