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Williams faces a tough test in the next round

1/18/2007 - Tennis

PETROVA - WILLIAMS PREVIEW

By Matt Wilansky, ESPN.com
Having cruised through the first two rounds, Serena Williams will encounter her first real test when she takes on Russian Nadia Petrova in the third round. Williams had little trouble with Mara Santangelo in her opening match and followed that up with a straight-sets win over qualifier Anne Kremer 7-6, 6-2.

Williams, a two-time champion Down Under, has put herself in a difficult position. Having played in only 16 matches last season, her world ranking fell to No. 95 by year's end. Now, she faces a stiff test in Petrova early in the tournament. Unquestionably, Williams, who struggled at times in her last match, will need to reach deep and find the next gear if she plans on getting by Petrova. "I felt a little rusty. …I was hitting a lot of balls out, but I've got to shake it off," the American explained to reporters after her last match.

It's a work in progress for Williams. Last year she reached the third round at the Australian Open before taking a six-month hiatus to heal her injured left knee. She returned in late July to Cincinnati, but as a result of a lengthy layoff, there were ramifications. Williams played there unseeded, a first for her since 1999. She hasn't been seeded at an event since.

What does all this mean? According to Williams, she's pressure free. "I feel just like a bird, and I feel free. I feel, you know, really loose," she said.

But now, with sister Venus watching from home while recovering from a wrist injury, all eyes are on the younger sibling to restore not just the Williams name, but to put American tennis back on the map.

For the first time since 1976, not a single American woman is seeded at the year's first Grand Slam event. Williams said this has no bearing on her mental preparation. "I have to focus on me, you know, just staying relaxed, being content and being happy," she said.

As for Petrova, despite her No. 5 seeding, she, more than any of the top-tier players, is marred by inconsistent play.

In early April last season, Petrova put together a Roger Federer-like run, winning three consecutive tournaments leading up to the French Open. However, at Roland Garros, she was upset by the 69th-ranked player in the world, unproven Akiko Morigami. Consequently, that loss fueled a career-worst streak. Petrova then failed to win a match in five straight tournaments. At the U.S. Open, she finally snapped out of it, winning two matches before bowing out in the third round.

Petrova's up-and-down season once again took a turn for the better in October. In Stuggart, Germany, she claimed her fifth title of the season, and immediately afterward reached consecutive finals in Moscow and Linz, Austria.

While it appears Petrova should have the upper hand in this third-round showdown, don't discount Williams. They've met six times in their careers, with Williams winning five of those, including two years ago at the Australian Open. Williams has won all four of their previous encounters in Grand Slam events, and if there is one distinct advantage, it's her mental toughness and capability to stay cool under pressure. Said Williams in regard to this match, "I'm moving forward, figuratively and literally, I should be fine."