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Venus Finds She Has a Leg to Stand On

Tennis: After shaky start, Williams' ailing knee passes test in third-round win at Australian Open.


MELBOURNE, Australia — It took Venus Williams about 15 minutes to realize she would have to win this third-round match on two legs, not one. One healthy knee might be adequate against players ranked outside the top 30, but Daniela Hantuchova had just enough power to force Williams out of her comfort zone.

Williams lost the first four games in 15 minutes and promptly turned into a different player, running full out and testing her aching left knee, beset with tendinitis. The second version of Venus was enough to offset the initial cautious Venus as she defeated the Slovakian teenager, 3-6, 6-0, 6-4, in 1 hour 47 minutes today at the Australian Open.

Hantuchova, seeded 32nd but ranked 28th, has plenty of talent but little experience at Grand Slam events. This was her first third-round appearance at a major.

The second-seeded Williams, though hampered by an ailing knee, is the reigning Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion and the victory put her winning streak at 23 matches. Her immense talent and experience compensated for any physical weaknesses.

"I knew what kind of player she was," Williams said. "After the first set, I settled in, got comfortable."

Her intense discomfort in the second round against Kristina Brandi cast doubt over her title run. But Williams skipped practice on her off day, received treatment and consulted with members of her entourage about whether to play today's match. "Ice is my best friend now," she said.

"I talked with my mom, dad, [sister] Serena, too," Williams said. "Everybody. I took yesterday off. They told me too. The main battle was getting the swelling down. It's really a blessing I'm here."

Hantuchova subscribed to the experience theory. The hard-hitting baseliner has defeated the likes of Jelena Dokic, Amanda Coetzer and Meghann Shaughnessy and has come close against the very best, leading Jennifer Capriati, 7-5, 4-1, before losing to her last summer in Canada.

"I was really happy with the way I played the first set," she said. "I was moving her around and my serve felt pretty good. It's a shame I started badly in the second set. She got on the top of my game. In the third, I had many chances to go 4-3, 5-4, and a couple easy mistakes, a bit of inexperience cost me the match."

In one stretch, from the start of the second set, Williams won eight straight games, taking the second, 6-0, and building a 2-0 lead in the third.

She let Hantuchova back into the third set, and the Slovak had a point to go up, 5-4, but smacked a forehand about an inch wide. Williams, who had seven aces and four double faults, held at 15 to reach a fourth-round match against 13th-seeded Magdalena Maleeva of Bulgaria.

Said Williams: "You always go into a match a little nervous after you've had a scare. I felt very good today. I felt like I could move. She had a few drop shots I didn't run for at first."

The biggest threat in Williams' quarter of the draw is No. 8 Monica Seles. Seles, a four-time champion here, defeated No. 31 Francesca Schiavone of Italy, 6-4, 6-4. In three matches, Seles has lost 13 games.

In other third-round matches today, one more American exited. Qualifier Alex Kim, who upset former champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov of Russia in the second round, was outclassed by Chilean qualifier Fernando Gonzalez. Gonzalez beat Kim, 6-2, 6-2, 6-3. Gonzalez hit 48 winners, including 11 aces, to just 10 winners for Kim.

One set stood between wild-card entrant Taylor Dent of Newport Beach and a spot in the final 16, but a double fault on break point in the sixth game of the fifth set cost him dearly against Adrian Voinea of Romania.

Voinea defeated crowd favorite Dent, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, in 2 hours 28 minutes.

It certainly did not come easily as Voinea fought off two break points when he served for the match at 5-3. He won it on his first match point when Dent chipped a backhand return wide. Dent had 14 aces and double faulted six times.

Since it has become well-known that Australia and the United States are vying for the Davis Cup services of Dent, the 20-year-old has been embraced by fans here. His father, Phil Dent, an Australian, reached the final of this event in 1974.

Still, it does appear as though Dent will end up playing for the U.S., and he said earlier this week that he is leaning that way.

Television commentator John Alexander, who is Dent's godfather and an Australian Davis Cup legend, found it hard to control his emotions during the match.

"Yes, I'm trying to be objective, but it's an interesting experience," said Alexander, who was also Phil Dent's doubles partner.

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