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Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Serena ecstatic about inauguration day

By Sandra Harwitt
Special to ESPN.com

Celebrating the inauguration

MELBOURNE, Australia -- On the eve of Barack Obama's inauguration as president of the United States, it seems the entire country of Australia has an enthusiastic case of Obama-mania.

The inauguration from start to finish -- parade, swearing in, inaugural speech and parties -- is set for full TV coverage throughout the middle of the night, and the newspapers have been splashed with pages of pre-inauguration news.

It was no surprise that the upcoming Obama fanfare was the hot topic at the Australian Open on Tuesday.

By virtue of their affiliation as Jehovah's Witnesses, Serena and Venus Williams usually shy away from discussing politics. And in following the dictates of their religion, the sisters do not participate in the political process, so neither cast a vote for Obama or anyone else.

Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Serena Williams fully appreciates the global effect Barack Obama's election has had on culture.

But with the inauguration only hours away, Serena couldn't resist expressing an interest in the Obama phenomenon that is sweeping the world.

"I never thought I'd live to see the day there would be an African-American president," Serena said in a conversation with ESPN.com after her 6-3, 6-2 first-round win over Yuan Meng of China. "You see, [although] it happened in TV shows, it never seemed realistic, really. But I guess it is now. I don't know why I would've thought that, being my age, being so young, but still it was just kind of the mentality."

What struck Serena as most momentous about Obama's election was his broad-based appeal.

"He got a lot of the Hispanic votes. He got a lot of the Caucasian votes. He got a lot of the African-American votes. I think he was just embraced by all cultures and crossed all lines. I think that's important, not seeing the color barrier and just listening to the points."

Her postmatch news conference was dominated by questions regarding the inauguration -- she will tape it and watch it later, as opposed to watching it at 4 a.m., and she understands the significance of the occasion for the black community.

"This is an amazing moment for American history," Serena told the assembled media. "To have [Martin Luther King Jr.'s] birthday and Obama's presidency fall so close to each other. This morning I was watching on the TV. I looked at my arm and I literally had chill bumps."

In comparison to Serena's surprising effusiveness on Obama, Venus preferred not to become embroiled in a discussion about the incoming president after her 6-3, 6-3 win over Angelique Kerber of Germany.

Nevertheless, persistent reporters prevented her from avoiding the topic entirely.

"I think it's exciting that in America we can have a president -- or that we can have diversity," said Venus, who did say she thought he was the best candidate. "We've had a long history in America of, you know, in the past racial strife. My parents grew up in the South, things like that. So it is nice to see that diversity, I guess."

Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.

Five things we learned on Day 2

1. Andy Murray's memory is lacking: He might dazzle with his tennis skills, but Murray's memory needs sharpening. After advancing to the second round more easily than expected, the Scot was asked whether he'd ever finished off anyone's career before -- Tuesday's foe, 34-year-old Andrei Pavel, retired in the second set with a bad back and later said it probably was his last match.

"Yes, I beat Neville Godwin in a challenger in Manchester," Murray said. "That was the last match he ever played. So, yeah, I have."

Not quite. Murray did indeed beat the South African at a challenger in Manchester in 2003, but Godwin played one more tournament the following week in Italy.

Pavel, a streaky, gung-ho baseliner, won three titles and reached a career-best ranking of 13th five years ago. Surgery isn't in the cards.

"I don't want to have surgery on my back," Pavel said. "You know, what for? I'm 35 in a few days. If I have a surgery, I'm going to be 36. What am I, [Lance] Armstrong? No, I am not."

2. Those French guys are good: The top four men's threats from France, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gilles Simon, Gael Monfils and Richard Gasquet, reached the second round with mostly comfortable wins. Only the puzzling Gasquet needed more than the minimum number of sets.

Simon, Monfils and Gasquet lie in the same quarter -- Rafael Nadal's quarter -- with the perpetually charged-up Tsonga, last year's finalist, in the same half. Monfils, seeded 12th, and Simon, seeded sixth, are set to collide in the fourth round.

Good thing they all get along.

"We are four players who have the same age," Simon said. "It's very good for us to be playing good at the same time because I hope for the Davis Cup we are going to do something good."

France, which won the last of its nine Davis Cup titles in 2001, visits the Czech Republic in the first round of the world group in March.

3. The outlook is poor for Nicole Vaidisova: Once a can't-miss prospect, Vaidisova is turning into a no-hoper.

The Czech, similar in style -- and appearance -- to another trained at Nick Bollettieri's academy in Florida, Maria Sharapova, exited to French veteran Severine Bremond. Bremond, barely inside the top 100, eased to a 6-2, 6-1 win in 1 hour, 2 minutes.

Vaidisova, ranked 52nd and sinking, unfurled 27 unforced errors. With potentially one of the biggest serves in the women's game, she faced 16 break points.

4. Comebacks are possible in the heat: Losing the first two sets in a best-of-five encounter isn't ideal, especially in soaring temperatures. But rallying from two sets down is far from impossible, mind you.

Two players achieved the feat Tuesday, led by Pavel's longtime Davis Cup teammate Victor Hanescu. The imposing baseliner downed Czech Jan Hernych 3-6, 3-6, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (4), 8-6 in 4:12. Hernych couldn't serve out the marathon at 6-5 in the fifth.

Russian Igor Andreev, whose thunderous forehand wreaked havoc on Roger Federer at the U.S. Open last summer, overcame Canadian wild card Peter Polansky 5-7, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 in 3:14.

5. Lleyton Hewitt is still rusty: Australia's top hope at the event couldn't quite deliver a win against Chilean Fernando Gonzalez in the choice encounter of the first round.

Playing his first Grand Slam since career-saving hip surgery in August, the two-time Grand Slam champ fell 5-7, 6-2, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 in front of an ultimately deflated crowd at Rod Laver Arena.

"Just wasn't quite getting enough push off in my legs, my left leg, due to playing five sets, especially as the match went on with my serve," Hewitt said. "It probably cost me a little bit, especially late in the fourth and fifth sets."

The nation's leading women's contender, Casey Dellacqua, lost a tight two-set battle to Slovak Daniela Hantuchova on Monday. Aussie attention now turns to new hero Bernard Tomic. The 16-year-old plays Luxembourg lefty Gilles Muller at Rod Laver Arena in Wednesday's night session.

-- Ravi Ubha

Climb every mountain

Safin

In September 2007, Marat Safin attempted to climb Cho Oyu, the sixth-highest mountain in the world; it lies on the border between Tibet and Nepal, and it stands in the shadow of Mount Everest. As it happened, Safin turned back before reaching the 26,864-foot summit. But failing to go the distance has not diminished Safin's interest in a possible second go at climbing in the Himalayas.

"I think it's a great experience," Safin said. "Everybody should do that. If the friends of mine are going to have a trip, another trip back there, I'm going to do it. But you need to be really committed to it. It's not a walk in the park. It's a tough one. You need to be prepared for that mentally and physically."

-- Sandra Harwitt

Tuesday in the Down Under papers

Tomic

Not surprisingly, the newest Australian teen sensation, Bernard Tomic, drew headlines in all the Australian papers on Tuesday for winning his first Grand Slam match on Monday. But the Herald Sun gossip column, "Confidential," also concentrated on other juicy items from in and around the Australian Open.

The Bryan brothers, Bob and Mike, were the musical attraction at the Prince party on the Observation Wheel -- an old-fashioned steamboat that rides down the Yarra River -- the evening before the Open commenced.

Apparently, Daniela Hantuchova ducked the event, as she doesn't have sea legs and suffers from motion sickness.

Also prominently featured was Andy Roddick's fiancée, Brooklyn Decker, who was pictured sitting courtside. The paper highlighted an up-close look at Decker's knock-your-socks-off, blinding-under-the-summer-sun diamond engagement ring. One item missing from the paper's report was that the couple already are parents, sort of, to an English bulldog puppy named Billie Jean, in honor of you know who. The couple kept visiting Billie Jean at a pet store near their New York apartment, and one day when they put her back in her crate, she cried. So they scooped her up and took her home. No word from the real Billie Jean as to what she thinks about her namesake.

Serena Williams might be claiming to cut back on purchases because of the current economic crunch, but she was seen shopping in her favorite Chapel Street shop, Bettina Liano, on Monday evening. At least a pair of jeans went home in a shopping bag.

-- Sandra Harwitt

Dare to drive

Williams

While Andy Murray is discussing when he might eventually get a driver's license -- suggesting he might learn to drive in Florida, where he owns an apartment in Miami -- Venus Williams is busy driving around town in Melbourne.

Not wanting to drive the minute you are old enough is a foreign concept to Williams, who obtained her driver's license at 16.

At the Australian Open, players are accorded courtesy cars and drivers to take them wherever they want to go. But this year, Venus is behind the wheel with little concern about driving on the opposite side of the road, even successfully negotiating the unique Melbourne right turn from the left-most lane.

"I drive everywhere," Venus said of her Melbourne jaunts. "I drive to Fitzroy. I've driven to St. Kilda. I've driven downtown. I make that wide turn. I get lost. I take detours. I double back, and I succeed."

What would she say to other Americans about driving on the opposite side of the road?

"You just have to get confident. It's taken me about 10 years, but suddenly I was ready. It's much more fun driving here than at home because there it's a chore and here it's like a luxury, kind of like an adventure."

-- Sandra Harwitt

Heat patrol

Melbourne Park

Tuesday delivered a brutal 104 degrees Fahrenheit before things cooled down in the late afternoon. A TV weatherman noted that an average summer in Melbourne usually has only one day of temperatures reaching 104 degrees. The outgrowth of the heat is that the famed Melbourne flies plague anyone brave enough to venture outside.

--Sandra Harwitt

Critic's choice

Federer

No. 2 Roger Federer vs. Evgeny Korolev: The most famous fact about Australian Open qualifier Evgeny Korolev is that his first cousin just happens to be Anna Kournikova. Maybe that connection will help him be a little less intimidated when he faces the great Roger Federer for the first time. The No. 118 Korolev, whose best weapon is his backhand, has played in eight Grand Slams and has never done better than three second-round finishes. What can't you say in favor of Federer in this match?

ESPN.com prediction: Federer in three.

-- Sandra Harwitt