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Serena fights to keep name off upset list

She comes back from two big deficits against a Russian teen to advance at the French Open.

By Associated Press
Published May 28, 2004

PARIS - With favorites falling all around, Serena Williams talked herself out of a loss. Her sister Venus spoke French more fluidly than she played.

Ever the perfectionists, the siblings weren't too pleased with how things went Thursday at the French Open. Still, both managed to move into the third round, something neither the defending champions nor any American man can boast.

With shadows creeping across the court and a determined opponent matching her shot for shot, Serena came back twice from substantial deficits to pull out a 4-6, 6-2, 6-4 victory over 17-year-old Russian Maria Kirilenko.

As surprising as it would have been for a six-time Grand Slam tournament champion to lose to a neophyte, it would have made sense at this upside-down event.

Juan Carlos Ferrero, last year's winner, lost in straight sets Thursday to Igor Andreev, a Russian ranked 286th at the start of 2003. Ferrero joined women's titleholder Justine Henin-Hardenne on the sideline. It's the earliest that both defending champions have been beaten at a major in the Open era, which began in 1968.

Also gone earlier: Andy Roddick, Andre Agassi and all eight other U.S. men, prompting L'Equipe, France's leading sports newspaper, to attach the label "US Go Home" to a chart comparing the results of various countries' players. (A similar chart after Thursday's play would show six French men and seven Russian women still in it.)

Though it's the first time in more than 30 years that a major's third round won't include an American man, six U.S. women did make it that far: the Williams sisters, No. 5 Lindsay Davenport, No. 7 Jennifer Capriati, Meghann Shaughnessy and Marissa Irvin.

"I guess it will just be up to us to keep America alive here," said Capriati, the 2001 champion, who defeated Kveta Peschke 7-5, 6-3 after trailing 5-3 in the first set.

"On red clay, everyone is going to be tough. As you can see from other matches, it's tough for everybody."

It's always that way at Roland Garros, it seems: Of the past 15 men to win titles in Paris, 10 were first-time Slam champs. Last year, Martin Verkerk came to the French Open having never played a match at a major, and he made it to the final.

Seeded 19th now, Verkerk got a third-round meeting with Lleyton Hewitt when his opponent quit with a leg injury. Thursday's losers included No. 10 Sebastien Grosjean, No. 14 Jiri Novak, No. 24 Jonas Bjorkman and No. 25 Ivan Ljubicic. Fewer than half of the 32 seeded men are left.

At times it appeared Serena would need an early flight home, too.

She needed every bit of her substantial resolve to eliminate Kirilenko, the 2002 U.S. Open junior champion.

The slender Kirilenko, ranked 100th, switched speeds effectively, but she also stood firm during extended exchanges from the baseline, even without the benefit of Serenalike muscles. After putting her racket on a 120 mph fault, Kirilenko shook her right hand in the air, as if to say, "That stings!"

She even drew applause from Williams for one backhand winner off a drop shot.

First down a set and a break, then trailing by two games in the third set, Williams just kept chatting with herself. She'd slap herself on the thigh while muttering after an error. A "Yes!" or "Come on!" would follow a winner.

She tossed her racket a few feet after slapping a forehand into the net to give Kirilenko a 4-2 edge in the final set. Then she didn't lose another game.

"I pretty much stood out there and told myself to keep fighting," the 2002 champion said. "Sometimes, I really need to realize, "Okay, Serena, maybe you should do this.' So I'm going to be on the practice court all day tomorrow."

Odds are, she'll be there with her sister. Venus Williams trailed 3-0 against Jelena Kostanic before winning 6-3, 6-3, despite 27 unforced errors, one more than Serena.

As Venus left the court, a local TV reporter asked if they could speak in French. Displaying an impressive accent, Williams said: "I'm very happy to be here in Paris. I hope to win here."

Later, Venus dwelled on her errors, rather than the day's result, which improved her to 17-0 on clay this season.

"I hate mistakes in everything, not just on the court," she said.

"Sometimes, I haven't worked hard enough. Sometimes, I've wanted it too much. Sometimes, I haven't wanted it enough. Sometimes, I didn't listen to my coaches. Sometimes, I didn't listen to myself."

[Last modified May 28, 2004, 01:00:27]


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