MELBOURNE: Top seeds Serena Williams and Lleyton Hewitt were given a savaging by two underdogs at the Australian Open here yesterday before scraping into the next round.
World number one Williams and male counterpart Hewitt are the overwhelming favourites with bookmakers to lift their respective singles titles in Melbourne.
But both players were grateful to survive searching first round examinations on the Rod Laver Arena yesterday after being put through the grinder by their unheralded opponents.
Williams, chasing a “Serena Slam” with victory in Australia to add to her French Open, US Open and Wimbledon titles won last season, found herself out-thought and out-fought for long periods of her match against France’s Emilie Loit.
Employing some clever shot variation to move the powerful American around the court, world No. 56 Loit reduced Williams to an obscenity-screaming mass of frustration at one stage.
Williams, who was given a code violation for her verbal barrage, eventually came through to win 3-6, 7-6 (7-5), 7-5 in a gruelling 123-minute tussle. Williams now faces Belgium’s Els Callens in the second round tomorrow.
Hewitt, who has the weight of national expectation bearing down on his 21-year-old shoulders as Australia hopes for its first Open winner since 1976, was taken to five sets by Swedish qualifier Magnus Larsson.
The 32-year-old Larsson’s booming forehand caused all manner of problems for Hewitt before his superior fitness told and he secured a 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7 (3-7), 6-2 win. Hewitt will now play compatriot Todd Larkham in the next round.
Both Williams and Hewitt said they were simply relieved to have reached the second round after toughing out two matches they both described as a wake-up call.
“I’m happy to be through to the second round,” Hewitt said.
“It’s a little bit of a wake-up call for me,” said Hewitt, praising his opponent Larsson.
“I thought he played incredibly well for a guy who didn’t play many tournaments last year.”
Williams meanwhile said she was mystified at her inability to deal with Loit.
“I don’t know where I was today,” she said. “But I’m okay.
“I didn’t play anywhere near the way I can. It was me making errors and not attacking and focusing and a little tense and not doing the things I had to do.
“But now I’ll be in the groove. Maybe this match was just the heads up for me that I needed. Everyone wants to try and beat me and I probably just need a reminder.
“I just had a bad day today,” said Williams. “I haven’t had a bad day in a little while.”
Though under pressure at times, Williams insisted she had always been confident of victory.
“I never thought I was going to lose. That thought never crossed my mind. I did think to myself ‘Gosh, this is bad’ but I never felt I was going to lose,” said the 21-year-old.
While Williams and Hewitt laboured to victory, there were no such worries for Belgian fourth seed Kim Clijsters, who revelled in the vocal support of the Australian fans to cruise into the second round.
Clijsters, who was later among the spectators as boyfriend Hewitt battled against Larsson, breezed past the United States’ Samantha Reeves 6-2, 6-1 to set up a meeting with Hungary’s Petra Mandula.
Elsewhere sixth seed Roger Federer was made to work hard as he came through a three-hour tie with Brazil’s Flavio Saretta, winning 7-6 (7-4), 7-5, 6-3.
Another Brazilian, Gustavo Kuerten, won a testing encounter with Morocco’s Hicham Arazi, winning 6-4, 7-6 (10-8), 6-3.
The three-time French Open champion, who won the New Zealand Open last week, said he was pleased to have picked up the winning habit early in the year
“For me it’s always difficult to find my rhythm in the beginning of the year,” the 26-year-old said.
Last year’s finalist Marat Safin meanwhile, seeded three, overcame Raemon Sluiter of Holland 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, revelling on the Rebound Ace surface which he believes is faster than last year.
“It is definitely faster. The bounce is a little lower and it’s good for my game,” he said.
“But I’m really far from winning this tournament and first I have to get through the first week,” said Safin, who now faces Spaniard Albert Montanes in the next round. – AFP