Hantuchova deals Serena early exit


Serena Williams makes a futile effort to pump herself up. ''I was prepared. I just didn't play my best at all,'' she said.

The Associated Press
Published: Saturday, January 21, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 21, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
MELBOURNE, Australia - Serena Williams fended off four match points, making it seem as if another Australian Open comeback was in store.
Daniela Hantuchova had other plans. The 17th-seeded Hantuchova, from Slovakia, clinched the upset Friday on her fifth match point when Williams hit a return wide. It was the earliest exit for Williams at the season's first major since 1999 and it snapped her 16-match winning streak in Melbourne.
"I was just thinking about going to the tiebreak and just trying to hold on," Williams said after losing 6-1, 7-6 (5). "I wasn't thinking about the past or anything like that. I think I was really calm."
Williams has made a habit of flirting with elimination en route to capturing her two Australian titles, fending off two match points against Kim Clijsters in a 2003 semifinal and three against Maria Sharapova last year.
The seven-time Grand Slam singles winner saved three more serving at 5-6 in the second set against Hantuchova, coming back from 0-40 to force a tiebreaker.
"I think we all know how well she can really play," Hantuchova said. "But to her credit, I thought she kept fighting until the end."
Williams trailed 3-0 and rallied again to lead 4-3 before Hantuchova won three straight to set up another two match points.
Williams saved one of those, but missed on a service return on the next.
It was the earliest that Williams and sister Venus - a first-round loser - have exited a Grand Slam that both contested. It was Serena's earliest departure here since the third round in 1999.
Their worst previous joint performance came at the 1999 French Open, when Serena lost in the third round and Venus in the fourth.
Hantuchova next plays fourth-seeded Sharapova, who routed Jelena Kostanic 6-0, 6-1.
Top-seeded Lindsay Davenport and French Open champion Justine Henin-Hardenne advanced, as did No. 2 Andy Roddick and No. 4 David Nalbandian on the men's side.
Williams came here without much preparation and it showed. She had 37 unforced errors and hit only 17 winners.
She stamped her feet. She shook her head side-to-side. But no amount of cajoling helped her this time. Besides, she said, she was in reasonable condition, but still couldn't find her rhythm.
"I was prepared. I just didn't play my best at all," she said. "I just was hitting balls every which direction. Just going everywhere. I didn't feel any of them."
Hantuchova was stopped in the third round at all four majors in 2004. Her best run to date has been to quarterfinals at three consecutive majors ending at Australia in 2003.
The 22-year-old Hantuchova has beaten top-10 players before, and had a career-high ranking of No. 5, but said she'd struggled with confidence in big moments.
"This time not really - I was not fighting myself at all as I used to," she said. "I was sometimes beating myself and not really playing the opponent - those times were difficult."
Williams declined to pick a favorite among the women, which still contains seven of the top-10 players.
When pressed, she jokingly said: "I'm rooting for James Blake all the way. Hopefully he'll pull it out."
Her backing did not help 20th-seeded Blake, who went down 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 to Spain's Tommy Robredo.
Williams' loss means there will be no repeat singles champion here.
Marat Safin, the 2005 men's winner, didn't make it to Melbourne due to a knee problem.
Roger Federer is the overwhelming favorite in the men's draw, with Roddick emerging as the strongest of the challengers.
Federer plays Max Mirnyi in the third round Saturday.
Davenport and 2004 Wimbledon champion Sharapova remain the leading contenders for the women's title.
In typically fickle style, the weather was hot enough in the afternoon to force organizers into enforcing the extreme policy - meaning suspensions on outside courts - and wet enough in the evening to postpone five matches.
Even the Hantuchova match on Rod Laver Arena was interrupted because of a sudden downpour - with Williams trailing 3-1 - so that the roof could be closed.
Hantuchova came out after the half-hour delay and went straight back on the attack, finishing off the set with her third service break.
Roddick said he wanted to be aggressive. He won 17 of the first 18 points against Julien Benneteau, breaking him six times in a 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 rout under a broiling sun.
"On days like today where it is pretty hot, you just try to get through," said Roddick, who finished with 17 aces.
He next faces Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus.
Davenport struggled in the heat, hitting 42 unforced errors in a 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 win over Maria Kirilenko.
"It's tough. The courts are real sticky."
She twisted her ankle but expected to be OK on Sunday, when she faces 2004 U.S. Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, one of four Russians advancing Friday.
Sharapova, No. 6 Nadia Petrova and Elena Vesnina were the others.
On the men's side, No. 7 Ivan Ljubicic, No. 10 Thomas Johansson and No. 11 David Ferrer all advanced, while No. 8 Gaston Gaudio fell to unseeded Frenchman Fabrice Santoro.

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