Nothing automatic for Serena these days

Updated: May 26, 2009

Work to be done

PARIS -- In her professional debut, 14-year-old Serena Williams lost to No. 149-ranked Annie Miller 6-1, 6-1 in Quebec City.

In the intervening 14 years, Williams has beaten each and every one of her 55 opponents who have been ranked No. 100 or worse. Moreover, she has never, ever lost in the first round of a Grand Slam.

On Tuesday, Williams ran that streak to 38-0 with a victory over the Czech Republic's Klara Zakopalova, the world's No. 100-ranked player. Historically, Williams is automatic against weak opponents, but this is not to suggest that she doesn't make things interesting.

After failing to convert eight match points, she prevailed over Zakopalova 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-4 in a halting match that required 2 hours, 25 minutes.

"I just played horrendous," Williams said. "I think I was nervous because I hadn't won a match on clay all year. "Couldn't you tell how tortured I was out there? I think the look on face said it all. I just played junior tennis -- or even worse."

Serena and her sister have a tendency to play themselves gradually into Grand Slam events and this one has been no different. A day after Venus managed to drop a set to Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Serena's concentration briefly wandered off the reservation -- and it almost cost her the match.

Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images

Serena Williams needed nine match points to beat Klara Zakopalova.

After winning the first set with relative ease (there was a service break), suddenly, Williams found herself in an 0-3 hole. Naturally, she rallied, winning five games in a row -- but then inexplicably gave back five match points.

Zakopalova came back to force a tiebreaker, which she won with a sweet forehand aimed right at Serena. Although she managed to avoid the shot -- it was a classically awkward moment -- Serena couldn't keep it in the court and the match progressed to a third set.

It was the 12th time in 38 first-round matches that Williams has gone the distance, a surprising number considering the lack of depth in a Grand Slam draw and Serena's place in the game. Ordinarily, when she has come in lightly played, this is not a problem. At the age of 27, playing on what appears to be an unstable left knee, extra court time is not welcomed.

The second set alone took 67 minutes.

Though Williams has won the last two Grand Slams she has contested, growing empirical evidence suggests she is struggling physically. That balky knee, which first required surgery in 2003, cost her six months and sent her ranking spiraling outside the top 100 in 2006. It has been an off-again, on-again proposition ever since.

"My leg felt pretty good, actually," Williams said. "I'm definitely more confident in it. I felt good movement-wise."

Williams entered the French Open on a career-worst four-match losing streak -- including a three-set loss to Zakopalova, of all people, in Marbella, Spain, in early April. Williams' clay-court season was an 0-for-3 disaster before Zakopalova almost beat her for the second time in two months.

There were times during the match -- notably, the penultimate point of the second set -- when Williams' knee appeared to buckle. She played Tuesday's match with a black band wrapped just above the hinge.

Williams raced out to a 5-2 lead in the final set, but again lost her way, suffering a service break at 5-3. Zakopalova was game, but she just didn't have the strength to take advantage of Williams' indiscretions. When her forehand went wide, Serena literally jumped for joy.

"I feel like I've been in an uphill battle," Williams said. "It hasn't been easy but I can't give up. Now, hopefully I'll start playing better."

Five things we learned on Day 3

1. Americans struggle on clay: Who knew?

Seriously, this is a standing headline that never seems to go out of style.

On Tuesday, James Blake, Mardy Fish, Bobby Reynolds and qualifier Carly Gullickson all went down in first-round matches. After a surprisingly auspicious clay-court tuneup, including a run to the final in Estoril, Portugal, No. 15 Blake looked listless in succumbing to 93rd-ranked Leonardo Mayer in straight sets. Fish, the No. 22 seed, lost to Maximo Gonzalez after a fourth-set tiebreaker. Reynolds, playing only the fourth clay match of his career, got rolled by Gael Monfils in straight sets. Meanwhile, Gullickson -- the daughter of former major league pitcher Bill Gullickson -- lost the fourth Grand Slam singles match of her career, falling in straight sets to Sorana Cirstea of Romania.

2. So NOT Amelie: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga seems very comfortable in his French skin -- in France. After defeating fellow countryman Julien Benneteau in a first-round match, Tsonga unleashed a world-class smile. And why not? He's won his past 11 matches on French soil, going back to last fall's Paris Indoor and this year's Marseille tournament.

3. Sprain damage: Novak Djokovic was a point away from beating Rafa Nadal in the Madrid semifinal -- maybe his abbreviated first-round match will eventually put him over the top here.

Nicolas Lapentti retired with a sprained left ankle with Djokovic leading 6-3, 3-1. While Nadal looked sluggish in his first-round match, Djokovic was spared at least a set and a half of wear and tear on his tires. Going forward here at Roland Garros, it could be the slight advantage that swings the balance if they meet in the final.

4. So little to say: The entire transcript of Svetlana Kuznetsova's postmatch interview following her first-round 6-1, 6-4 victory over Claire Feuerstein of France:

Media: Were you happy with your performance today?

Kuznetsova: Well, definitely happy with the first set. Second set could have been better. I think I did a few unforced errors, which I shouldn't have been doing and could have done much better. But still, so I close it up.

5. Tennis Tweet of the day: British No. 1 Anne Keothavong, after her 6-0, 6-0 first-round loss to Dinara Safina: One to forget. Dad keeps finding an excuse to knock on my door at hotel every 20 minutes -- think he just wants to make sure I'm still alive! (Courtesy of www.tennistweets.com.)

Still going

Quiz time, tennis fans: Who has played the most Grand Slams in men's tennis history?

Maybe ageless Jimmy Connors? Andre Agassi? Stefan Edberg?

No. No -- and no. The answer, my friends, is one Fabrice Vetea Santoro, the human victory lap. The 36-year-old Frenchman is appearing in his 67th Grand Slam event, 20 years after debuting at the French Open. For perspective, consider that Martina Navratilova retired at that same number.

Andre Agassi is second on the Open era list with 61. On the women's side, Amy Frazier is the major shelf-life champion with 71.

This is Santoro's last dance at Roland Garros -- but, of course, he said that last year. Quantity, it must be said, outruns quality here; Santoro's best Grand Slam results are reaching the fourth round -- twice in Paris, in 1991 and 2001, and at the 1999 Australian Open.

A victory over Christophe Rochus in the first round would set up a possible second-round encounter with Arnaud Clement. In 2004, over the course of two days, Santoro and Clement played the longest singles match on record since 1968. Santoro won after 6 hours, 33 minutes, taking the ultimate set 16-14. Santoro was trailing Rochus 6-3, 6-1, 3-6, 5-3 when play was suspended Tuesday.

"It was a beautiful match," Santoro said afterward. "It was a great match on a great court in Paris with probably the best crowd ever for us. But quite aside from the record, I'm happy to know that at the age I've reached I can still play tennis for six hours."

Santoro also owns the longest active consecutive streak at the majors. Since missing Wimbledon in 1998, he's played in 43 straight Grand Slams.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.


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Rafa watch

Nadal

Providing context for Rafael Nadal's success at Roland Garros is proving increasingly difficult.

He is still only 22 years old -- turns 23 on June 3 -- but he is already at the top of the all-time leaderboard. And the numbers keep getting stranger and stranger. Nadal's first-round win over Marcos Daniel raised his overall record here on Monday to 29-0.

Not only is that perfect, it's the longest consecutive match win streak in tournament history. More remarkable? Nadal has lost only seven sets in those matches -- the last one coming in the 2007 final against Roger Federer.

Nadal complained of tired legs following his first-round victory, but the streak is likely to continue; he plays Russian Teimuraz Gabashvili in the second round. Nadal beat him 6-2, 6-2 in their only previous meeting, earlier this year in Miami.

--Greg Garber

Cover-up plan

Philippe Chatrier

The French Tennis Federation is inching toward expansion of the facilities at Roland Garros, with the centerpiece projected to be a new retractable-roof, tennis-specific stadium on a parcel of land about a 10-minute stroll from the current grounds. Federation and city of Paris officials recently selected a swooping, modernistic design by French-born, University of California-Berkeley-educated architect Marc Mimram.

New federation director general Gilbert Ysern said completion of the project could be at least five years away, assuming the federation gets the permits -- and financial support -- it needs from city, state and national authorities. Construction costs are estimated at 120 million Euros (about $167 million at the current exchange rate), about one-third of which would come from public sources if the federation makes a successful pitch. There's also talk of installing a temporary removable roof on the current main stadium, Philippe Chatrier, although that's more problematic. Zoning regulations prohibit the stadium from increasing in height, so any cover would have to be temporary and removable. As for the new stadium, Ysern said the federation will have to satisfy nearby residents that the project won't overly disrupt the affluent neighborhood.

Ysern said the tournament does envision scheduling night sessions, but insisted the French Open will not go the way of its Australian and American counterparts with graveyard-shift matches. That would leave Wimbledon as the sole day-ball-only Slam; All-England Club officials have said the new Centre Court roof will permit them to continue matches in case of rain, and although they might extend into darkness, no matches will be scheduled at night.

The bottom line, according to Ysern, is that the French Open has fallen behind the other three Grand Slams in terms of infrastructure, both in terms of space and amenities. (He did dismiss the notion that the new indoor clay-court event in Madrid could ever supplant the French Open.) An expanded facility and schedule would surely be planned with an eye on increasing revenues. Ysern said the federation is not "money-driven,'' but it does want to invest in -- surprise -- building more clay courts in its regional training centers, which are equipped almost exclusively with hard courts.

"One of the weaknesses of our system is that we have very few clay-court specialists,'' said Ysern, noting the home country's championship drought here -- 25 years on the men's side, nine for the women. "It's a little annoying.'' We Americans feel your pain.

--Bonnie D. Ford

Saved by the dusk

Wozniacki

Oddly, in this La Ville-Lumiere -- The City of Lights -- there are no lights at Roland Garros.

This might have cost Vera Dushevina her first-round match with No. 10-seeded Caroline Wozniacki.

On Monday, the 22-year-old Russian seemed to have things well in hand after she won the first set 6-4 and led 2-0 in the second set. But, after earning two break points on Wozniacki's serve, she missed a forehand wide -- in retrospect, probably an effective match point.

Wozniacki, 18, escaped, then later broke Dushevina when she was serving to reach a tiebreaker in the gathering darkness on Court Philippe Chatrier. When Wozniacki scrambled to take the second set, her on-court manner was still unsettled, but the match was suspended at 9:27 p.m.

Wozniacki said she slept well.

"I didn't sleep badly," she said. "Because when you start today telling yourself you have one set -- you have to start well."

Wozniacki returned for Tuesday's third set, played on Court No. 2, a completely different player.

It took only 12 minutes for her to ruin Dushevina's composure. After a bad overhead, Dushevina bounced her racket in the dirt and when she fired an easy swinging volley into the net she was broken -- for good.

Wozniacki won six of seven games, and the 18-year-old now plays 34-year-old American Jill Craybas in the second round.

"I really had to fight to get to the second round," Wozniacki said. "It's difficult to put the counter on zero and start the second day."

--Greg Garber

Critic's choice:

Sharapova

Maria Sharapova vs. Nadia Petrova: This will be the sternest test so far in Sharapova's comeback from shoulder surgery. Petrova is seeded No. 11 here and will put pressure on Sharapova's retooled but so far modest serve. Petrova made the semifinals here in 2003 and 2005, but Sharapova wants this one more … Sharapova in three.

-- Bonnie D. Ford