Serena not so ladylike in battle

 

Australian Open: "A lady never wants to lose a diamond," said Serena Williams, explaining that the jewels on her dress were rhinestones and not the real thing. Or a tennis match, she could have added.

The truth yesterday was that the world number one, and current holder of the French, Wimbledon and US Open titles, came awfully close to a shock defeat against France's Emilie Loit in the first round, becoming so rattled that her own epithet of "lady" hardly applied.

Williams, often looking sluggish and ill at ease, finally went through 3-6, 7-6, 7-5, but was given a warning in the second set for a verbal obscenity, and her mouthed choice of words when Loit saved a second match point in the third owed more to the factory floor than polite society.

When challenged about this, and asked whether the warning had been a reflection of her frustration, she replied: "I don't remember that."

Both she and her sister, Venus, have remarkably selective memories when any whiff of controversy sullies the air.

Although she was at pains to point out how poorly she had played, the younger of the sisters was not prepared to admit how well her opponent had performed. Perhaps this attitude goes back to the early part of the sisters' careers, when several French players were less than complimentary about the two Americans' insular attitude in the locker-room.

Williams approached this first round match as if her mere presence would be enough. Neither Serena nor Venus has ever prepared for the Australian Open with any diligence, and consequently neither has reached the final.

This year may be different, given their total domination of the past three slams, but Belgium's Kim Clijsters, the fourth seed, who won her opening match against the American Samantha Reeves 6-2, 6-1 and who appears super-fit, will surely have taken great heart from Serena's stuttering start.

A genuinely competitive women's match in the first round of a slam is a great rarity, so those in the Rod Laver Arena, some of whom had witnessed Jennifer Capriati's defeat the previous evening, had good cause to feel fortunate. The suspicion of another upset came in the match's second game when Williams began to flex her left knee. Thereafter she was quickly 5-2 down, with the trainer called at 2-1 and two pills swallowed.

"It was just an anti-inflammatory," she explained. "I was having a little knee problem and usually the pills make me feel a little better. They settle in after about 20 or 30 minutes."

By then, though, she was a set down, Loit having played some wonderfully fluent tennis, including any number of thrilling forehands.

Signs of a recovery came at the start of the second when Williams broke Loit's serve to love, but the light-framed 23-year-old left-hander, ranked 56th and without a singles title to her name, was far from overawed and eventually forced a tie-break, which was dominated by the American.

Yet far from this signalling the beginning of the end, Loit continued to trouble Williams, breaking her service for a 3-2 lead. She then had a point for a 4-2 advantage in the final set but for once her forehand failed her and Williams levelled.

Loit saved two match points on her serve at 5-4, one with a drive volley and the other with a delicious drop shot, but by then she was visibly flagging.

"I never thought I was going to lose but I did think, gosh, this is bad. I didn't play anywhere near my ability," said Williams.

That much was true, but it was a marvellous display by Loit, who received her due recognition from the crowd. A pity, then, the world number one was a good deal less respectful.

Guardian Service