Tennis: Williams wins action replay

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WHEN IN ROME, Venus Williams did as she did in Hamburg, and won her second clay court singles title in consecutive weeks. The 18-year- old American even defeated the same opponent in the final, Mary Pierce, who again was not in the best of health. A week ago, at the German Open, the Frenchwoman was troubled by a back injury, and lost, 6-0, 6-3. Yesterday, hampered by a strained left groin, she was beaten 6-4, 6-2.

In spite of the similarities, Williams confirmed that there is no tournament quite like the Italian Open. The runner-up to Martina Hingis last year, she outlasted the Swiss world No 1 in Saturday's semi-finals, 6-4, 1- 6, 6-4, and was able to ignore myriad distractions yesterday and control the majority of the points against Pierce.

Williams is accustomed to dealing with the odd disturbance in the crowd. A couple of years ago, a rat ran among spectators while she was playing in Key Biscayne, Florida. Yesterday a swarm of bees attacked spectators in the upper tier of as stand just as Williams was about to serve at 3-2, 0-30 in the opening set. She double-faulted, and Pierce was able to draw level.

When Williams was about to serve for the set, having broken for 5-4, four chaps dressed like Dracula, in black top hats and capes, arrived to support Pierce, as they did when she overcame her countrywoman Amelie Mauresmo in the semi-finals. Williams noticed them, but served out to love.

An alarm went off as Williams was on the point of recovering a break of serve in the third game of the second set. When the crowd had settled, the American produced a solid return that was netted by Pierce. There were also the minor irritants of a light aircraft canvassing the crowd with a streamer campaigning for a Signore La Starza as a Euro MP and a police helicopter monitoring the football crowds as they gathered at the nearby Olympic Stadium, roaring for Lazio against Bologna in the Serie A football championship race.

All this was apart from Pierce's treatment sessions, which began with an injury time-out after 12 minutes and continued at each change-over until she received a warning for time-wasting before the eighth game. "I was on the court and I did the best I could," Pierce said afterwards, adding that she was in pain for most of the match when running or playing shots. Williams said she had not been helped by Pierce's injury. "I don't doubt that she had an injury, but I still had to play well to win the match," she said after posing with the trophy for her younger sister, Serena, who joined the line of press photographers to snap the victory presentation.

Williams, the No 3 seed, showed in wearing down Hingis that she is the form player going into the French Open in two weeks' time. Pierce has regained enough confidence to be a contender in Paris, if, as she says, "My body lets me".

Tim Henman, whose improved skills on clay took him to the quarter-finals of the German Open in Hamburg last week, is drawn against the Czech Daniel Vacek in the first round of the Italian Open men's singles tournament, which starts here today. Henman, the No 7 seed, has won his three previous matches against Vacek, in New Haven, Toulouse and Toronto, none of which was on clay.

Greg Rusedski, the No 12 seed, opens against the Australian Scott Draper, a fellow left-hander. This will be their first match on clay, Rusedski defending a 5-0 record, having defeated Draper four times on concrete courts and once on grass, at London's Queen's Club in 1997. They have met twice this year, at the Australian Open in January and in Indian Wells in March.