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Difficult Victory Leaves Venus in Retrograde

While other top women roll, No. 3 Williams looks uncertain, dispirited against 109th-ranked Australian.

May 30, 2003|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — The wave was stiff. The smile barely parted her lips and never touched her eyes.

Venus Williams, 22, won her second-round French Open match Thursday over 109th-ranked Evie Dominikovic of Australia, but the third-seeded Williams needed three sets, winning, 6-3, 4-6, 6-2.

This is not how a Williams sister usually plays in the early rounds of a tournament. A Williams sister is not bothered by players of little accomplishment and low rankings.

She does not, given a chance to get back on serve in the second set, get herself broken. She holds serve to make the score 5-4 and then wins the next three games, giggles a little, waves long, manicured fingers at the adoring crowd and skips off to have a fine dinner and a good rest.

That's how things used to be, anyway.

But this Venus, who has ceded her No. 1 ranking and Grand Slam-winning ways to her more flamboyant, outgoing, fun-loving sister, Serena, seems unsure of herself. She seems untrusting of her game and uncertain of her desire. She sighs after hitting good shots, hangs her head after bad ones and doesn't quite put her entire spirit into a tennis match.

This was in stark contrast to the grunting, groaning, spitting tennis played by two aging stars out on cozy Court 3, where Tim Henman beat Todd Martin, 7-6 (5), 5-7, 6-1, 7-5.

Henman, who will turn 29 in September, and Martin, who will turn 33 in July, have games built for hard and grass courts, not clay.

Henman, seeded 25th, has been to Wimbledon's semifinals four times and twice more to the quarterfinals. Martin, ranked 78th, has been a finalist at the Australian and U.S. opens and twice a Wimbledon semifinalist. Both men are married with children. Martin's hair is more gray than brown and he has tape wrapped around both wrists and ankles. So does Henman.

Yet they played with style and grit. "Good shot," one would yell. But then, he'd shout bad words to himself or yodel in despair or anger after a ball just missed the line or a serve kicked just long.

"This is the absolute best place in the world to play," Martin said. "There's some consolation in losing to a friend and having a competitive, well-spirited match."

Henman said, "The kind of clay-court tennis we're playing, there's probably a little bit more variety than some of the other matches that you're seeing."

Neither man truly expects to win the French Open. Henman now gets Juan Carlos Ferrero, who is 23, seeded third, a 2002 finalist and a Spaniard who learned to crawl on red clay.

Ferrero also has played only 4 1/2 sets in two rounds. He won his first match in straight sets and his second-round opponent, Nicolas Massu of Chile, had to quit while trailing, 6-2, 3-0, because of an ankle he'd sprained in the first round. So Ferrero will be rested and frisky and, as always, comfortable on the red clay.

Martin and Henman aren't made for the way dirt makes their shots slog instead of skitter. But this didn't mean they didn't want anything more than a place in the third round.

Venus Williams won four Grand Slam tournaments over two years. Then Serena grew up, grew confident, gained control of her shots. In four consecutive majors, Venus has finished as a losing finalist to Serena. Her ranking is down to No. 3, something most other players would celebrate.

But for Venus, it seems a position to sniff at, a stage not quite big enough.

According to Dominikovic, Serena is clearly, significantly better than Venus. In other words, it wouldn't have taken Serena nearly two hours to send Dominikovic, who turned 23 Thursday, back to Australia.

Venus committed 68 unforced errors and her serve was broken five times.

"I was happy I was playing Venus and not Serena," Dominikovic said.

The other high-seeded women who played Thursday had easier times. Second-seeded Kim Clijsters breezed past Marlene Weingartner of Germany, 6-2, 6-2; No. 6 Lindsay Davenport, playing her first tournament since getting married, beat Iroda Tulyaganova of Uzbekistan, 7-5, 6-1, despite facing 10 break points; and No. 7 Jennifer Capriati knocked out Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli, 6-3, 6-0, despite loud crowd support for Bartoli.

Clijsters' boyfriend, top-seeded Lleyton Hewitt, struggled for the second straight time but also came away a winner. Hewitt needed more than three hours to beat Nikolay Davydenko of Russia, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5). Also advancing to the third round were ninth-seeded defending champion Albert Costa, who needed five sets for the second time before outlasting Radek Stepanek, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4, and Gustavo Kuerten, seeded 15th and a three-time champion, who beat Hicham Arazi of Morocco, 6-1, 6-0, 6-1.

The U.S. men are down to two players after Martin's loss and the elimination of James Blake. Blake, seeded 24th, completed a match that had begun Wednesday, losing the fourth set and the match to Ivan Ljubicic, 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4.

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