Serena Williams looked rusty right down to her bright red tennis shoes Tuesday night, leaving a trail of unforced errors as she creaked across the court in her opening-round match at the Australian Open. It wasn't certain that Williams, who hadn't played competitively in three months, would survive the layoff until the very bitter end of her 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 win over Australian Amanda Grahame, a wild-card entrant ranked No. 261 in the world.
Afterward, Williams acknowledged that perhaps she should have arrived in Australia earlier than she did--five days ago--and that perhaps she should have played in a warm-up tournament to prepare for her run here. Still, she believes she can play a lot better here, despite her lack of match play and despite a recurring back injury that flared up again Tuesday morning.
"It's really out of control the way I played today--there's just no excuse," Williams said about a half-hour after the match, shaking her head in amused disgust. "There was no excuse, really, especially after playing tennis for 14 or 15 years. That's inexcusable."
Williams's most recent tournament was at the beginning of October, when she was knocked out in the second round at Filderstadt, Germany. She was supposed to play in the WTA Tour's season-ending Chase Championships in November, but she strained her back the morning of her first match and withdrew. The injury has recurred, and although Williams said "it's at a lower level [than in November]", against Grahame it added to the general rust she felt after such a long time off the professional circuit.
"I wasn't moving the way I usually am--bright, lovely Serena," she said. "My legs weren't in working order. Usually my legs don't work after 4 a.m. my time, and now it's 7 a.m. [in the United States.] They usually get started back around eight o'clock, so they should be working again in about 55 minutes."
While Williams was rasping in her victory, Rockville native Paul Goldstein was extremely sharp in defeat, finally falling to Australian favorite Lleyton Hewitt, 6-2, 6-7 (7-5), 7-6 (7-5), 6-4 in a late-night, three-and-a-half hour marathon Tuesday. This morning, No. 7 seed Amelie Mauresmo--a finalist here last year--was ousted by Switzerland's Patty Schnyder, 6-4, 6-4, while men's top seed Andre Agassi was able to overcome a rough start to defeat Sjeng Schalken, 7-5, 6-0, 6-3.
When his match ended, Agassi received a rousing ovation from the crowd, including girlfriend Steffi Graf, who has been beseiged by autograph seekers here. Agassi has been reticent to answer questions about Graf since a false report of a marriage between the two surfaced just before this tournament, but today he was more relaxed about the subject, noting that the two do talk tennis from time to time.
"There's a lot you can learn from a champion, and she's a champion, so I definitely do my best to learn from her," he said. Agassi added that watching Graf slide into retirement this year has been helpful for him as well, because "she took that step into the retirement abyss that tends to scare most athletes. Seeing her go through it is certainly something I can learn from as well. It's not quite as scary when you see it first-hand."
Only 18 years old, Serena Williams is far from retirement, although she was very close to elmination Tuesday night as she racked up 20 unforced errors in the first set and another 23 in the second set. She was also called for several foot faults, perhaps because the bright red sneakers she was wearing were attracting so much attention. The shoes were part of a new look for Williams, who has been dressing completely in red and black and who has been wearing fewer beads in her hair.
Williams later acknowledged that her shoes may have cost her a serve or two, but she doesn't intend to change them--she just intends to play better than she did against Grahame. She certainly has a lot of room for improvement. Williams fell behind several times in the match, including as late as midway through the third set, when Grahame took a 4-2 lead by breaking Williams's serve with a solid cross-court winner. Williams was able to break Grahame back immediately, however, and the pair stayed on serve until the final game, when Williams broke Grahame on her third match point.
After the match, Williams said she was frustrated with herself, although she does consider just being here something of an accomplishment. Her sister, Venus, is missing this tournament with a wrist injury, and Serena was also planning on skipping the event until about a month ago.
"I really just didn't want to come," she said. "But, I don't know, I thought I should come--it's a hard-court tournament, and I seem to do well in hard-court events.
"I had a lot of different factors. I just wanted to take some time off, go to school, do something there. I don't know, I just didn't want to go down under. But now I'm glad I came, that I didn't miss out on the first Grand Slam of the new millennium."
When: Through Jan. 30.
Where: Melbourne Park, Melbourne, Australia.
TV: ESPN, ESPN2.
Defending champions: Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Martina Hingis.
Wednesday's results: Men--Andre Agassi (1), United States, def. Sjeng Schalken, Netherlands, 7-5, 6-0, 6-3; Pete Sampras (3), United States, def. Mikael Tillstrom, Sweden, 6-3, 7-6 (8-6), 6-1; Nicolas Kiefer (4), Germany, def. Guillermo Canas, Argentina, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4; Albert Portas, Spain, def. Gustavo Kuerten (5), Brazil, 4-6, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (10-8), 6-4.
Women--Martina Hingis (1), Switzerland, def. Mirjana Lucic, Croatia, 6-1, 6-2; Serena Williams (3), United States, def. Amanda Grahame, Australia, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4; Barbara Schett (6), Austria, def. Meilen Tu, United States, 6-2, 6-7 (7-1), 6-4; Patty Schnyder, Switzerland, def. Amelie Mauresmo (7), France, 6-4, 6-4.