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Title defense starts with win for Serena

- The Washington Times - Monday, January 14, 2008

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — The difference in 12 months was easy to see.

Serena Williams, wearing fuchsia bicycle shorts and a headband, a short white dress and dangling, chandelier-inspired earrings, found her form quickly and beat Jarmila Gajdosova 6-3, 6-3 today (last night EST) in the first match of the Australian Open.

Last year, Williams was unseeded, ranked 81st and coming off one of her worst losses on tour — in a Tier 4 event at Hobart — yet she beat six seeded players en route to the title at Melbourne Park. It was her eighth and least expected Grand Slam win.

Expectations — hers and the pundits — are much higher this season.

"It's obviously a lot different — I'm not No. 81 any more. And the court's different — it's a different color," Williams told the crowd after her 62-minute match at Rod Laver Arena against wild card entry Gajdosova, a Slovak who is representing Australia.

"I thought about last year, you know, my last match on that court I was able to win it — and that's all I thought about. I didn't think about holding up the trophy. I just got right back into the swing of things and thought, 'I have to stay focused.' "

Top-seeded Justine Henin, in her first match at Melbourne Park since retiring from the 2006 final against Amelie Mauresmo, won the last six games to beat Aiko Nakamura 6-2, 6-2 for her 29th consecutive win.

Third-seeded Jelena Jankovic saved three match points and needed 3 hours, 9 minutes to edge Austria's Tamira Paszek 2-6, 6-2, 12-10 at Vodafone Arena. The deciding set was four minutes shy of two hours, including 15 breaks of serve and an injury timeout for each player.

Henin was going through a divorce and skipped the last Australian Open, then came back to win the French and U.S. Opens and the season-ending championship. Her only loss in six months was to Marion Bartoli in the Wimbledon semis.

She won the Sydney International title Friday.

Another former champion who missed the last Australian Open is back in good form this year. Lindsay Davenport, the 2000 winner, was pregnant with her first child and on a break from the tour.

The 31-year-old Davenport has won three titles and is 18-1 since returning to the tour after the birth of her son, Jagger, in June.

But her low ranking, No. 52, meant the winner of 54 tour titles was unseeded for the draw and put her on a collision course with last year's runner-up, Maria Sharapova, in the second round.

At her pretournament press conference, the seventh-seeded Williams said she had not even looked at whom she was playing first because she was focused on herself.

At 3-0 in the first set, the attitude seemed to be vindicated.

But then she stumbled, dropping her serve on three forehand errors. Instead of moving her feet, she was reaching for balls and surprised by some of the pace coming from the 145th-ranked Gajdosova.

Williams held to lead 4-3, then slipped and fell onto her bottom on the new blue Plexicushion surface. She got up and regained her focus and momentum.

She won the set with consecutive aces and then dropped just one of her last 16 points on serve and made only five unforced errors in the second set.

Gjadosova double-faulted to set up triple match point, then netted a forehand to finish the match in a little more than an hour.

"Yeah, I'm feeling good," Williams said after she jogged to the net with her left arm raised, index finger outstretched, to meet Gajdosova. "Most of all, I'm enjoying myself."

On the men's side, second-ranked Rafael Nadal, the only player to beat Roger Federer at the last 10 Grand Slams — at the last two French Opens — played Viktor Troicki of Serbia in the night match on center court.

Federer has a start tomorrow (today EST) after a disrupted buildup because of a stomach virus.

In late matches, sixth-seeded Andy Roddick faced Czech qualifier Lukas Dlouhy, and No. 9 Andy Murray had a challenging opener against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France.

In early men's matches, No. 24 Jarkko Nieminen of Finland outlasted Canada's Frank Dancevic 6-3, 6-1, 5-7, 2-6, 6-1; No. 23 Paul-Henri Mathieu of France beat Victor Hanescu 6-1, 7-6 (4), 6-2; and Mardy Fish, who combined with Serena Williams in the United States' Hopman Cup winning team earlier this month, beat Serbia's Boris Pashanski.