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Despite errors, Venus survives

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 27, 2008

PARIS (AP) - Venus Williams was cruising along with a ho-hum 6-3, 4-1 lead over her 35-year-old opponent at the French Open yesterday when everything went awry.

The double-faults piled up. The forehand errors did, too, and Williams lost six consecutive games to fall behind as a drizzle fell. The crowd was rooting for the underdog, applauding in unison every time 93rd-ranked Tzipora Obziler of Israel earned a point.

When the eighth-seeded Williams would hit a winner, the sounds of approval emanated mainly from her personal guests. "Whooo!" one of her sisters kept yelling.

"I told the people in our box, 'Be quiet so she can concentrate,' " said Williams' father and coach, Richard. "Venus is a great thinker and a great player. I wasn't nervous at all."

Eventually, the six-time major champion did manage to turn things back around quickly enough to pull out a 6-3, 4-6, 6-2 victory over Obziler and reach the second round at Roland Garros before the rain grew heavier and washed out the latter part of the day's schedule.

"I'm glad at the end that I figured it out," Williams said.

Three-time defending men's champion Rafael Nadal was supposed to follow her on center court, but his match never began. Among those who did play yesterday was No. 1 Roger Federer, who wasn't tested much in a 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 victory over Sam Querrey of the United States.

"You never think you're going to be the guy that's going to draw him when the draw comes out," the 40th-ranked Querrey said. "But someone has to."

The day's most significant upset was produced by another American, 106th-ranked Wayne Odesnik, who beat No. 29 Guillermo Canas of Argentina 7-6 (6), 7-6 (3), 7-6 (8). The match lasted the minimum number of sets yet took 3 hours, 46 minutes.

"There's not too much to say. I think he played well," said Canas, who has lost his past six matches, all on clay. "I didn't play well at all."

The only other seeded man to exit on Day 2 was No. 17 Marcos Baghdatis, the 2006 Australian Open runner-up who lost to Simone Bolelli of Italy in straight sets. Baghdatis always draws a big crowd at Roland Garros because he trains at a Paris tennis academy.

Another product of that academy is Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, the 16-year-old Russian who won a Grand Slam match for the first time by beating Maria Emilia Salerni of Argentina 6-1, 6-1.

"I just play. I don't think about the results," said Pavlyuchenkova, who recently finished high school and is the youngest player in the tournament.

Williams, who used to be ranked No. 1, has had stretches of brilliance - particularly at Wimbledon - but has never been all that successful at the French Open. This is the only Grand Slam tournament where she has been past the quarterfinals only once - in 2002, when she lost to sister Serena in the final.

Part of it is that clay dulls her stinging serve. Part of it is that moving around on clay is tough. Part of it is the sort of inconsistency on display in the middle of yesterday's match, when she kept slumping her shoulders and hanging her head after miscues.

"Venus can play a lot better than she did today," her father said. "After she settled down, she pulled it out."

He shed no light on whatever health issues might be troubling her. Venus Williams was off the tour for about a month this year after having medical tests. She hasn't said what the tests were for - and even her father said he doesn't know.

"Venus never talked to me about it, and I never asked her. The only thing I asked is 'Are you sure it's time to come back?' And she said, 'Yes,' " he said. "Does it have an affect on her or not? This I don't know."