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Venus falls in second-round shocker

6/25/2004

WIMBLEDON, England -- With all her injuries and mediocre
play of late, the last thing Venus Williams needed was for her
opponent to be awarded an extra point.

That's precisely what happened Thursday in the second round at
Wimbledon, and Williams lost to Karolina Sprem 7-6 (5), 7-6 (6),
the 2000-01 champion's earliest exit at the All England Club since
1997.

In a stunning officiating error at tennis' most hallowed ground,
chair umpire Ted Watts awarded the 30th-ranked Sprem a point she
didn't earn in the final tiebreaker.

And no one spoke up: not Williams, not Sprem, not the other
on-court officials.

"I'd like to think he didn't do it on purpose," said Williams,
who hasn't been past the quarterfinals at a major since losing to
younger sister Serena in a second straight Wimbledon final last
year. "I don't think one call makes a match. I had some
opportunities there, and it's unfortunate, but I'll learn from
it."

Even after the scoring mistake made it 2-2 in the final
tiebreaker, Williams built a 6-3 edge -- then lost five straight
points, mostly on miscues. She wasted two set points in the opening
tiebreaker.

"Unfortunately, the way it happened, Venus didn't query it at
the time," tournament referee Alan Mills said. "They played point
after point afterward, and the result, I'm afraid, stands as is."

Both Sprem, a 19-year-old Croatian who lost four straight Grand
Slam matches before this week and owns zero tour titles, and
Williams appeared confused.

"Sometimes I do lose track of the score, and I just felt that
maybe I had lost track again," said Williams, 26-0 against
everyone but her sister here since 2000.

Watts won't work another match during the tournament, Mills announced Friday. "I have now discussed the incident with the chair umpire
concerned, and we have agreed it will be in the best interests of
both parties if he takes no further part in the event," Mills said.

It's been some time since Venus dominated the way she did while
winning four majors and rising to No. 1 or while playing Serena in
five of six Slam finals. What's tough to tell is how much is a drop
in her play or an improvement by others.

Williams missed six months with an abdominal strain, then
twisted an ankle while beating Sprem at the German Open in May. She
also had to come to terms with the shooting death of half-sister
Yetunde in September.

"Sometimes you don't always win," the eighth-ranked Williams
said. "So I just feel like I'm going to find out what went wrong,
what didn't go right."

Asked if she'll watch a tape of the match to figure out what
happened on the scoring foul-up, Williams said: "Guess I should,
huh?"

Actually, all of the day's action could be packaged as a video.
No matches were played Wednesday, the tournament's first total
rainout since 1999, so Thursday featured more than a dozen major
champions.

There were two brief rain delays -- what else is new? -- while
swirling wind played havoc with balls and sent silverware
clattering in the club members' outdoor restaurant overlooking
courts.

Some highlights:

Martina Navratilova's first Wimbledon singles competition in
10 years ended with a 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 loss to Gisela Dulko, who beat
her at the French Open last month.

Also past Slam winners Jennifer Capriati and Lindsay Davenport and this year's French Open winner, Anastasia Myskina,
won. Mary Pierce and Conchita Martinez lost.

For all the excitement and oddities across the 19 courts,
nothing could top Williams-Sprem. Sprem confidently matched
Williams' power stroke-for-stroke from the baseline, returned
impressively, and hit serves at up to 119 mph.

"It's impossible to be a winner or finalist every year,"
Williams said, her voice cracking. "She played some good tennis."

Williams reacted to lost points by covering her mouth or putting
a hand on her forehead, as if wondering, "What's going on?"

But with Sprem serving for the match at 5-3, 30-love, Williams
regrouped to win 10 straight points, leading to the tiebreaker.

Williams led 2-1 when Sprem hit a first serve ruled wide by the
line judge, who put her arm out and shouted, "Fault!" Williams
casually hit the ball over the net, and Sprem smacked a backhand
into the open court. Williams stood still at the baseline, figuring
it was time for a second serve.

But Watts announced the score as 2-2, the sort of mistake that
occurs every so often but generally is corrected right away.

"I don't like seeing an error of that magnitude on Centre Court
at the All England Club. Maybe at a $25,000 event," said two-time
U.S. Open champion Tracy Austin, who called the match for the BBC.
"It's unfortunate for both players. If you're Sprem, you don't
want controversy associated with the biggest win of your career."

With the players apparently unaware Sprem received a point she
shouldn't have, they lined up again in the same positions for what
both thought was a second serve. Indeed, Sprem put a safe, 86 mph
offering in, and Williams laced a backhand return winner. That
should have made it 3-1 for Williams, but Watts called it 3-2.

"I didn't think about it. I was 100 percent in the match,"
Sprem said.

After double-faulting to make it 6-3, Sprem erased Williams'
first set point with a forehand passing shot. Williams wasted the
other two with a double-fault and a forehand error, shrieking as
the ball slapped the net to make it 6-6. Sprem went up 7-6 when
Williams' awkward volley hit the net tape and dropped back on her
side. The match ended on the next point, when Williams sailed a
forehand long.

Asked if Williams' status has dropped, the confident Sprem
laughed and responded: "Why you say this? Because I beat her?"