MELBOURNE, Australia -- Hours after older sister Venus Williams was upset in the first round of the Australian Open, defending champion Serena Williams narrowly avoided an embarrassing first-round defeat of her own to unseeded Li Na of China. Williams rallied for a 6-3, 6-7 (1), 6-2 win and advanced to the second round.
Williams returned with questions marks over her fitness
after knee and ankle injuries forced a long lay-off and she
narrowly avoided becoming the second defending champion to
lose in the opening round.
Jennifer Capriati was the first in 2003.
Seeded 13th after her ranking plummeted when she played
just 23 matches after winning in Melbourne last year, Williams
served for the match in the 10th game of the second set before
Li fought back to force a tiebreaker, which the Chinese woman
The pair traded service breaks in the deciding set before a
relieved Williams snapped back into gear to avoid joining her
sister Venus as a first round casualty.
Earlier in the day, Bulgarian teenager Tszvetana Pironkova, playing in her first major tournament, upset 10th-seeded Venus Williams 2-6, 6-0, 9-7.
"I told her I was a bit envious that she gets to go home, so
she could cheer up," Serena said. "She said 'You're not really
envious' and I'm like, 'Nah' -- she laughed at least," Serena
added, laughing. "By no means am I envious. I was just trying to
get her to cheer up, that's all. I don't want to go home."
Pironkova, 18 and ranked 94th by the WTA, rebounded from a shaky first set to steamroll Williams in the second set, setting up a tension-filled third set that went 16 games before a winner emerged. She had Williams, the defending Wimbledon champion, down 5-3, 7-6 and 8-7 before finally breaking through.
"I was little nervous in the beginning of the match," Pironkova
said. "And then when I sit down the break between the sets, I
said to myself, 'It's OK. You are here in the Vodafone Arena,
this big court, you need to show some tennis to the audience.
Just relax and play your game.' And that happened."
It was only the third time in 34 Grand Slam tournaments that Williams, a
five-time major winner, has lost in the opening round.
The 10th-seeded Williams sprayed 65 unforced errors, including
41 in the third set as she struggled to control her ground strokes
in her first tour-level event since September.
"It happens to the best of us," Williams said. "I had so many
unforced errors, I struggled to keep the ball in. I just couldn't
get it right -- she benefited from my largesse.
"If I had just one-third less errors, this match is a different
Pironkova broke Williams at 4-2 and was serving for the match at 5-3. But Williams broke serve to stay alive, held to tie the set at 5-5 and broke Pironkova again for a 6-5 lead.
But with Williams serving for the match, it was Pironkova's turn, breaking Williams again for a 6-6 tie and taking the lead back on service at 7-6. Venus held at 7-7, but Pironkova held at 8-7 and broke Williams an eighth and final time for the win.
Williams, who also had a chance to serve for the match in the
12th game, screamed when she gave Pironkova match point with a
backhand into the net. The 2 hour, 28 minute match ended on another backhand error.
On match point, Williams hit a backhand return into the net and Pironkova held her arms in the air, triumphant, before congratulating Williams at the net and acknowledging the crowd.
Williams couldn't explain how she went from highly consistent in
the first set, to completely erratic in the second.
Pironkova said she took advantage of Williams' errors, getting
more relaxed as the match progressed.
"I know Venus from the TV. I always love her game. She was kind
of my idol before," Pironkova said. "But when you go on court, I
am a professional, so I should not think about that. I just have to
play tennis, and I did."
Williams was not the only upset victim Monday, as ninth seed Elena Dementieva of Russia lost 7-5, 6-2 to German Julia Schruff after committing 37 unforced errors. It was the third time in four years Dementieva was eliminated in the first round at the Australian.
Dementieva, a former French and U.S. Open finalist, struggled from the outset and was quickly down 5-1 in the first set against Schruff, 23, who is unranked.
Dementieva fought back to 5-5 but lost the next two games to give Schruff the first set. She took a 10-minute break between sets but that failed to unsettle Schruff, who raced to a 4-0 lead in the second set.
Schruff won the match, her first at the Australian Open, after Dementieva hit a forehand into the net.
Top-ranked Lindsay Davenport cruised to a 6-2, 6-1 win over
Australian wild card entry Casey Dellacqua, ranked No. 180.
Davenport, seeking her fourth Grand Slam singles title and first
since her win here in 2000, set up three match points with an ace
and clinched it in 57 minutes with an overhead winner.
Davenport next faces Croatia's Karolina Sprem, a 6-4, 6-2 winner
over Alona Bondarenko of Ukraine.
In other opening-round matches, fourth seed Maria Sharapova
showed few signs of the shoulder injury that threatened to
wreck her Australian Open campaign, breezing to a 6-2, 6-1 win over Sandra Kloesel in 59 minutes. Sharapova shrugged off the injury concerns, breaking Kloesel's serve twice in each set.
Slovakia's Daniela Hantuchova, seeded 17th, overcame Japan's
Saori Obata 3-6, 6-3, 6-0 and No. 6 Nadia Petrova defeated
Australia's Sophie Ferguson 6-2, 6-1.
No. 24 Tatiana Golovin and No. 26 Ai Sugiyama were also knocked out,
losing to Mara Santangelo and Conchita Martinez Granados of Spain.
Former Wimbledon semifinalist Jelena Dokic, in her first
Australian Open since 2001, crumbled after thinking she'd won in
straight sets. Dokic celebrated a forehand on match point at 6-5 in
the second set, but it was overruled and called long. Virginie
Razzano rallied to win 3-6, 7-6 (6), 6-1.
"I was already really happy, and then half an hour later I was
the most disappointed," Dokic said. "It puts you down mentally."
SportsTicker, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.