Serena Williams lingered on Suzanne Lenglen Court following her surprisingly difficult three-set, second-round victory Thursday and blew kisses to a decidedly tepid crowd.
It seems nothing Williams does during this French Open -- whether clawing her way to a come-from-behind victory against a 17-year-old Russian, as she had just done, or debuting a collection of fuchsia tennis outfits designed with Paris in mind -- is enough to endear herself to this tournament's opinionated and often prickly fans.
After dropping the first set to Maria Kirilenko, an unseeded player she'd never heard of, Williams stormed back for a 4-6, 6-2, 6-4 victory. But it was no thanks to her audience, which early in the match made the diminutive Kirilenko, a former ballet dancer, its darling.
There is something so vulnerable about Kirilenko, a slip of a girl with a blonde ponytail and no musculature to speak of, that makes you want to drape a protective arm around her. That is, until she picked up a tennis racket and started manhandling the hardest hitter in the women's game, as she did Thursday.
Kirilenko tested Williams mightily, bolting to a 3-1 lead in the third set with no semblance of fatigue or fear. She wasn't awed by Williams's booming serve, nor was she cowed by her six Grand Slam titles. If anything rattled her it was the adoration of the fans, who urged her on at every critical juncture.
"I think I mostly lost my concentration because I serve two double fault," Kirilenko said afterward, recalling cheers that accompanied the turning point of the match.
Kirilenko looked elfin in her post-match news conference, which she opened by apologizing for her English. And she giggled as if she'd just played a trick on a schoolmate when asked if she thought Williams got more than she expected in the match.
"Yes," Kirilenko said with a mischievous grin. "I think so."
But now Kirilenko returns to the Moscow practice courts, where she trains with Ukranian boys, buoyed by the knowledge that she can compete with players like Williams.
And Williams moves on as the tournament's No. 2 seed and favorite to win it all -- particularly since defending champion Justine Henin-Hardenne bowed out Wednesday. Williams, the 2002 French Open champion, is on track for a semifinal meeting with her sister Venus, who also overcame a slow start Thursday to advance with a 6-3, 6-3 victory over Jelena Kostanic of Croatia.
If the tournament's seeding holds true, that would place Serena in the championship match June 5 against Amelie Mauresmo, who is seeking to become the first Frenchwoman to win the title since Mary Pierce in 2000.
To hear Serena talk, however, her game is in shambles. The French Open marks her first Grand Slam tournament since undergoing knee surgery last summer, but she insists the knee is holding up just fine. Her shortcomings against Kirilenko, she implied, had nothing to do with a physical ailment or fatigue.
"I'm terribly disappointed," Williams said. "I made tons of errors. I was spraying the ball"
The match featured some thrilling exchanges, with Williams pounding balls from one corner to the next, and Kirilenko running them down. Sometimes she smacked back with equal force; other times she floated it back or slathered on spin.
"When I hit the ball harder, it's easy for her," Kirilenko said, asked about the strategy. "When it's going, like, spin or slice -- she can't hit the ball so very hard."
French Open Notes: The walkways that wind around the 17 tennis courts at Roland Garros are lined with charming booths rented by companies such as Lacoste, Puma, Babolat and Wilson -- each selling tennis-related wares or promoting their image to the French Open's upscale clientele.
Among them for the first time this year is the al-Jazeera Sports Channel, whose booth is furnished with a flatscreen TV and staffed by Einat Yogev, an elegant, multilingual Parisian who describes herself as half Moroccan and half Iraqi with a Jewish mother.
The al-Jazeera Sports Channel was launched in November 2003 and currently broadcasts eight to 10 hours of sports programming a day, having secured rights to such events as Euro 2004 soccer, Euro handball, volleyball and Golden League track and field. It has a crew of about a dozen at Roland Garros preparing reports from the French Open, with former Moroccan tennis great Karim al Ami serving as the chief on-air commentator. The channel will also broadcast from the Olympics Games in Athens this summer.
The al-Jazeera satellite news channel, based in Qatar, has been criticized by some American officials for having what they say is an anti-American slant.
Nasser G. Al-Khelaifi, the network's director of rights acquisitions and a member of the Qatar Davis Cup team from 1992 to 2001, said the sports channel is completely independent from the 24-hour satellite news network.
"We're not part of al-Jazeera news," Al-Khelaifi said in an interview this week. "We don't want to talk about politics. It nothing to do with politics." . . .
Defending champion Juan Carlos Ferrero of Spain, who has been slowed by a rib injury, was defeated by Russia's Igor Andreev, 6-4, 6-2, 6-3. "It's pretty difficult to defend a title when you are not 100 percent," Ferrero said. . . .
Andre Agassi, accepted a wild card Thursday to play in the Wimbledon warmup tournament at Queen's Club.