Friday, May 28, 2004

Though far from flawless, Williamses still advance

The Associated Press

PARIS - Serena and Venus Williams weren't too pleased with how things went Thursday at the French Open. Still, both sisters managed to move into the third round - something neither the defending champions nor any American man can boast.

Serena came back twice from substantial deficits to pull out a 4-6, 6-2, 6-4 victory over 17-year-old Russian Maria Kirilenko.

As surprising as it would have been for a six-time Grand Slam tournament champ to lose, it somehow would have made sense at this upside-down event.

Juan Carlos Ferrero, last year's winner, lost in straight sets Thursday to Igor Andreev, a Russian ranked 286th at the start of 2003. With women's titleholder Justine Henin-Hardenne also on the sideline, it's the earliest both defending champions have been beaten at a major in the Open era, which began in 1968.

Also gone earlier: Andy Roddick, Andre Agassi and all eight other U.S. men, prompting L'Equipe, France's leading sports newspaper, to attach the label "US Go Home" to a chart comparing the results of various countries' players.

Though it's the first time in more than 30 years a major's third round won't include a single American man, six U.S. women did make it that far: the Williams sisters, No. 5 Lindsay Davenport, No. 7 Jennifer Capriati, Meghann Shaughnessy and Marissa Irvin.

"I guess it will just be up to us to keep America alive here," said Capriati, the 2001 champion, who defeated Kveta Peschke 7-5, 6-3 after trailing 5-3 in the first set.

Martin Verkerk, a finalist last year and seeded 19th this year, got a third-round meeting with Lleyton Hewitt when his opponent quit with a leg injury. Thursday's losers included No. 10 Sebastien Grosjean, No. 14 Jiri Novak, No. 24 Jonas Bjorkman and No. 25 Ivan Ljubicic. Fewer than half of the 32 seeded men are left.

There were times it appeared Serena would be headed home, too.

With Venus and their mother watching in the stands, Serena needed every bit of her substantial resolve to eliminate Kirilenko, the 2002 U.S. Open junior champion.

The slender Kirilenko, ranked 100th, switched speeds effectively, but she also stood firm during extended exchanges from the baseline - even without the benefit of Serenalike muscles. She even drew applause from Serena for one backhand winner off a drop shot.

"I pretty much stood out there and told myself to keep fighting," said Serena, the 2002 champion.

Venus trailed 3-0 against Jelena Kostanic before winning 6-3, 6-3, despite 27 unforced errors - one more than Serena.

Venus was annoyed by her error-filled play.

"I hate mistakes in everything, not just on the court," she said.

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