Sharapova overcomes challenge; Serena cruises

Updated: January 19, 2005, 2:55 PM ET
Associated Press

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Serena Williams doesn't mind being perceived as the best in women's tennis, even if she doesn't hold any Grand Slam titles or the No. 1 ranking.

At her fashion and acting engagements, nobody asks why she didn't win a Grand Slam tournament last season.

"People always assume that I'm No. 1, and I never correct them in any way," Williams said. "They always assume, you know, that I've won the last Grand Slam. I mean, except for the people that really watch. But other than that, people always assume ... I'm winning and that I'm No. 1. So, yeah, keep it like that."

The seventh-seeded Williams did her best Wednesday to convince her rivals and other close tennis observers that she's a championship contender at the Australian Open. She hit 38 crisp winners in a 6-3, 6-0 win over Dally Randriantefy of Madagascar and conceded just seven points in the second set.

Williams didn't drop a point on serve in the second set until the final game when she made two unforced errors. She set up match point with a curling forehand winner and ended the match in 48 minutes with her sixth ace.

"I definitely tried to step my game up," said Williams, who hit 38 winners and only 18 unforced errors.

My form "is definitely getting better and better with each match," she added. "I hit a lot of winners against a girl that actually gets a lot of balls back. So I was excited."

Williams is trying to recapture the form that made her the 2003 Australian Open champion. That victory completed her personal Grand Slam of four consecutive majors. She missed last year's tournament because of a knee injury.

"I'm feeling really good physically. I'm really proud of how I'm doing," she said, seemingly reinforcing local betting figures that make her favorite to win the tournament."

Williams will play 18-year-old Sania Mirza, a 6-2, 6-1 winner against Petra Mandula, in the next round. Mirza, playing in her first major, is the first Indian woman to make the third round of a Grand Slam tournament.

Williams said she didn't know of Mirza but could be sure of one thing: "I'm pretty sure she's heard of me."

While Williams was off her game last year, three Russians helped themselves to the last three Grand Slam titles.

Two of those -- Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova and U.S. Open winner Svetlana Kuznetsova -- dealt with different distractions en route to the third round.

Fourth-seeded Sharapova sprayed 19 unforced errors and only five winners in the first set against Lindsay Lee-Waters before she rallied for a 4-6, 6-0, 6-3 win on her sixth match point.

Kuznetsova, seeded fifth, found some sanctuary from questions about doping for 40 minutes, eliminating Marion Bartoli 6-2, 6-0.

Sharapova gets a day off before her next outing, against Li Na of China. She'll need it after an energy-sapping outing against an American mom.

Sharapova, who beat Williams in the last Wimbledon final, needed six match points to beat Lee-Waters.

Lee-Waters, 27, who has a 4-year-old daughter, had Sharapova scrambling and the 17-year-old Russian's screeching intensified with her desperation. Sharapova, who committed 44 unforced errors, needed to run a bag of ice over her neck and shoulders to cool off as the temperature rose into the 90s. She looked exhausted.

Sharapova had two in the eighth game of the deciding set and three on serve before Lee-Waters hit a forehand long to end the match in 1 hour, 47 minutes.

Desperate to finish the match, Sharapova switched hands to play a scrambling, lefty forehand two points from the end.

"It was an amazing match. I think both of us gave it all we've got," Sharapova said. "In the end, it was just a matter of a few points."

Lee-Waters, who was nominated as the WTA Tour's "Most Impressive Newcomer" in 1995, kept up the heat with a slice backhand that had her younger rival scrambling.

"It was too good from her side in the first set, but I was letting her dictate," Sharapova said. "Finally I said to myself 'you have to keep fighting, no matter what.' I've had some tough matches against her, but today was the hardest."

Kuznetsova escaped the doping questions that have beleaguered her this week on the court.

Belgian regional sports minister Claude Eerdekens said Tuesday that Kuznetsova tested positive for the stimulant ephedrine at a charity event last month. While ephedrine -- a common ingredient in cold medicine -- is on the banned list during competition, it's not off-limits during the offseason.

Kuznetsova said she sought a doctor's advice and was assured the medication she was given conformed with anti-doping regulations.

"When I was on court, I wasn't thinking about it," Kuznetsova said. "But as I walked off, it all started coming back."

The WTA Tour said Eerdekens erred by releasing the news prematurely. Eerdekens refused to apologize, and now Kuznetsova is considering a lawsuit.

"He has to pay for it," she said.

Kuznetsova's only scare during her match came when she nearly did a split while needlessly chasing down Bartoli's forehand on her first match point. She followed with her seventh ace to finish the match.

Two other Russian women won: No. 11 Nadia Petrova and Vera Douchevina, who upset No. 9 Vera Zvonareva 6-3, 6-3. Zvonareva double-faulted 11 times.

Three others lost, including Dinara Safina -- younger sister of Marat Safin -- who took a set off second-seeded Amelie Mauresmo before falling 2-6, 6-1, 6-0.

Mauresmo, the Olympic silver medalist and Australian runner-up in 1999, overcame poor serving in the first set and reeled off the last 10 consecutive games.

In other women's matches, Evgenia Linetskaya of Russia was a 6-0, 6-2 winner over Martina Sucha, and Li Na beat 28th-seeded Shinobu Asagoe 6-3, 6-4.

French Open champion Anastasia Myskina, two-time major runner-up Elena Dementieva, top-ranked Lindsay Davenport and Venus Williams are in second-round action on Day 4.

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press