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Serena's Reign Is Over in Australia

Defending champion focuses on her unforced errors, not concerns over her fitness, to explain loss in third round to Hantuchova of Slovakia.

January 21, 2006|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

MELBOURNE, Australia — As is it turned out, size did matter at the Australian Open.

Concerns about Serena Williams' weight might have been played up in the pre-tournament coverage, practically turning her into a female version of Shaquille O'Neal. However, Williams was not close to the form of her dominant days of 2002 and early 2003 when she won four consecutive Slams.

And that tipped the scales in favor of Williams' third-round opponent, Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia, on Friday. Hantuchova defeated the defending champion and 13th-seeded Williams, 6-1, 7-6 (5), ending her 16-match winning streak at Melbourne Park.

Hantuchova had never taken a set from Williams in three previous meetings. This time, she kept her nerve in the match -- which was halted for a time because of a rain delay and roof closure -- and held firm when Williams saved three match points in the 12th game of the second set and another in the tiebreaker. She won it on No. 5, blasting a big serve.

The shock value of early exits at Grand Slams by Venus or Serena Williams has lessened because of sheer frequency. But this is the first time both have been in a major and failed to reach the second week. And Serena's ranking could drop from 15 to as low as the 40s, making it a possibility she could show up at the French Open and Wimbledon unseeded.

But the just-out-of-retirement Martina Hingis cautioned against writing off either Williams sister, taking note of Venus' Wimbledon title in 2005 and Serena's victory here last year.

"Oh, both girls, I mean, they're such survivors," Hingis said. "

Whether Williams intends to arrive in better shape in Paris or London remains a mystery. She seems unwilling, at least publicly, to admit there are issues of fitness and desire.

"I was very ready," said Williams, who had 37 unforced errors. "I was really set and very ready to compete. I just made a lot of errors today. I just couldn't find my shots at all. Like everything I was trying just wasn't working. It was just one of those days."

Said Hantuchova: "I don't think she was hitting the ball as well as she could. I think we all know how well she can really play. But to her credit, I thought she kept fighting till the end."

Williams' post-match wishes went for naught too. "I'm rooting for James Blake all the way," Williams said. Alas, No. 16 Tommy Robredo of Spain beat Blake later for the first time in three matches, winning, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4, continuing a rough tournament for American men not named Andy Roddick.

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