Williams is back on track, but Agassi has close call

Wednesday, June 25, 2003

WIMBLEDON, England -- Three points into her first match since the Slam Streak ended, Serena Williams faulted. The Centre Court crowd responded with -- silence.

Ah, such sweet silence.

Trying to forget the French Open -- all of it: the loss to Justine Henin-Hardenne, the fans who cheered her mistakes, the postmatch tears -- Williams was close to her powerful best at Wimbledon in a 6-3, 6-3 first-round win Tuesday over Jill Craybas.

"Whatever happened in Paris," the top-seeded Williams said, "stays in Paris."

Never was there a hint she might stumble the way fellow defending champion Lleyton Hewitt did Monday, losing to a qualifier ranked 203rd.

"I'm sure he didn't take his opponent for granted, but I didn't want to come close, either. I wanted to make sure I was on my toes," Williams said. "I didn't want to make history by having two No. 1 defending champions go out."

Instead, the first round provided more evidence that the gulf between the top players and other women is far greater than among the men. The highest-seeded woman to lose so far is No. 19 Meghan Shaughnessy, and none the top 10 so much as dropped a set. That included No. 3 Henin-Hardenne and No. 8 Jennifer Capriati.

Eleven seeded men are gone already. No. 7 Guillermo Coria (a French Open semifinalist 2 1/2 weeks ago), No. 21 Martin Verkerk (the French Open runner-up), No. 14 Xavier Malisse (a Wimbledon semifinalist last year), and No. 20 Yevgeny Kafelnikov (a two-time major champion) all joined Hewitt on the way out.

Even 1992 champion Andre Agassi -- trying to break the record for most years between Wimbledon titles -- and four-time semifinalist Tim Henman dealt with moments of trepidation against undistinguished opponents.

The 33-year-old Agassi, oldest No. 1 in ATP Tour history and owner of eight Grand Slam titles, eliminated 456th-ranked Jamie Delgado 6-4, 6-0, 5-7, 6-4. Henman got past 157th-ranked Tomas Zib 6-2, 7-6 (11), 3-6, 6-1.

"It again goes to emphasize the strength and depth of the men's game. In the top 200 or 250, everybody can play," said Henman, again trying to become the first Englishman since 1936 to win Wimbledon.

Six men shared the past six Grand Slam titles. Just a trio of women -- the Williams sisters and Capriati -- split the 11 majors preceding the French Open.

Henin-Hardenne, of course, claimed her first major at Roland Garros after ending Williams' 33-match winning streak and four-title run at Grand Slams. That surprise came in the semifinals; they could meet at the same stage at Wimbledon.

In beating Julia Vakulenko 7-5, 6-1 Tuesday, Henin-Hardenne showed no ill effects of the hand injury that forced her to quit in the final of a tuneup event Saturday. Her left (non-racket) hand and two fingers were bandaged.

"It's sore and painful," Henin-Hardenne said. "But when I'm focused on the match, I can forget it a little."

Williams was quite focused against Craybas, an American ranked 66th, and now has won 16 straight sets at Wimbledon.

"She does so many things well," Craybas said. "She moves well. She can crack the ball when she wants."

That power is a big reason Williams and her sister, Venus, surged to the top of women's tennis in the past few years. Their success led others to tone up, too.

"Everyone is getting more muscles now. Everybody is looking stronger, acting stronger and playing stronger, for sure," Serena Williams said. "The whole level of the game has definitely lifted from when I first began."

And now the WTA Tour is embracing that aspect of its stars with a marketing campaign launched this week. Posters show close-up shots of players' muscles and grimaces as they smack shots. The tagline: "Get in touch with your feminine side."

"Wherever you go on tour, the gyms are packed. People are working out, trying to get faster and stronger," Craybas said. "I think that started with Martina Navratilova. But maybe because the Williams sisters are so strong, that's driven more people."

As in control as she was against Craybas, Williams never seemed quite satisfied with her performance, sometimes shaking her head or frowning after winning a point. Midway through the second set, she chastised herself for an errant forehand by tapping her racket on her forehead.

Williams was aggressive, hammering six aces, collecting 26 winners, and taking the point on all nine trips to the net -- an aspect of her game that troubled her in Paris.

All in all, the defeat there against Henin-Hardenne was difficult for Williams, who had to contend with a mean-spirited audience and some gamesmanship from the Belgian.

"I was a little upset for a few days," Williams said. "Everything you go through is a learning experience. It definitely made me stronger. I hate to lose. I just don't enjoy it all, under any circumstances."

Now, at least, she can laugh about the way she reacted right after the match.

Asked Tuesday about having cried, Williams was quick to correct her questioner.

"My eyes," she pointed out, "were watering."

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