Tennis: Kournikova's faulting farce

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THE WOMEN'S Tennis Association does not keep records for double faults, but Anna Kournikova must be pretty close to setting one. The 18-year-old Russian, who normally makes the news because of her good looks and powerful all-court game, hit 31 double faults in her 1-6, 6-4, 10- 8 victory over Miho Saeki of Japan yesterday.

Added to the 26 she served in her first-round match against the American Jill Craybas, it makes a staggering 57 for the Australian Open in Melbourne, in addition to the 34 she served in two matches in Sydney last week - 91 for the year so far in just four matches.

It was one of most feeble and unintentionally comical matches of all time, and the packed crowd groaned and hooted, laughed and whistled through every excruciating moment. That Kournikova won illustrated the way both players performed. Between them they made 149 unforced errors with 21 breaks of service.

After dropping the first set against the 80th-ranked Japanese, Kournikova rallied to take the second and open up a 5-0 lead in the third. She then had two match points but blew them both - on double faults.

The problem started in October at successive tournaments in Filderstadt and Zurich when she started averaging 15 double faults per match. Then, she looked close to tears, but in Melbourne she seems relaxed about her serving displays.

"It has been happening for a while, so I am kind of used to it," she said with a smile. "I'm really frustrated with it, just like everybody who is watching. In practice I feel fine, I serve normal, and there's no sign of double faults - it's just when I come to the line, when I play, there's something happening, so I'm just going to have to get over it and try to fight through."

While Kournikova scraped through, the No 4 seed, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, crashed out 6-2, 6-2 to Barbara Schett, the Austrian prospect who came within two points of beating Martina Hingis in Sydney last week. Schett humbled the reigning French Open champion, and suggested afterwards that the Spaniard was getting left behind by today's generation of power players. "I don't think you'll see too many new players who play like her," she said.

Steffi Graf also lost the opening set before coming through against Barbara Schwartz but it was relatively comfortable again for Monica Seles and the defending champion, Martina Hingis. Seles stretched her unbeaten record in the championship to 30 matches by beating Alexia Dechaume-Balleret while Hingis, chasing her third successive title, defeated the qualifier Elena Dementieva.