Bychkova shatters defending champion

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The Independent Online

It is surprising that Marat Safin and Tim Henman were not invited to join in the chorus. Safin, the fifth seed, withdrew from the tournament because of a knee injury, and Henman, the 12th seed, has been struck by a recurrence of the lower back injury that afflicted him here a year ago.

On that occasion, the British No 1, aided by an American chiropractor, Debbie Kleinman, was able to nurse the back problem (two degenerative discs) well enough to advance to the semi-finals, where he was defeated by Roger Federer, the eventual champion.

Kleinman's healing hands are again treating Henman's injury, and the Englishman has requested a late start for his first-round match against Fernando Verdasco, of Spain.

"It's frustrating, to say the least," Henman said yesterday. "Having had a problem with my stomach in Cincinnati, I think my body ended up compensating for it and my back has stiffened up as a result. I haven't been able to practise as much as I would have wanted, but at least I know what the problem is and how to go about treating it.

"I've been lucky to be able to see the same lady that treated me so well last year when I was suffering much worse than I am now, so I'm confident I'm in good hands. At least I know that it's still possible for me to do well, even if my time on the practice court needs to be limited. It's not the best way to prepare, but hopefully it will be a bit better and I'll be able to focus solely on winning."

Safin's left knee has been a problem all year, and his prospects of competing here began to diminish after he lost to Robby Ginepri, an American wild card, in straight sets in the quarter-finals at the Cincinnati Masters on 19 August.

It was in the second round in Cincinnati that Safin was taken to three sets by the 18-year-old Andy Murray, of Scotland, the British No 3, who went on to qualify for the main draw here at Flushing Meadows.

Safin, who was projected to meet Henman in the fourth round, has been replaced in the draw by Bjorn Phau, of Germany, who will play his compatriot, Alexander Popp, in the first round.

"Although Marat wanted more than anything to play and has tried whatever he could to be ready, as a professional tennis player he has had to admit his body is saying it is too soon," said a Safin statement.

"He has made the decision after discussions with all those around him. He is not depressed because he realises this is the right thing to do." The statement said that the Australian Open champion would return for treatment in Italy where he previously had keyhole surgery on the knee. It was not clear how long he would be out of action. "This time he will make sure he does not rush into returning. Marat still wants to play his tennis and he will be back," the statement added.

Serena Williams, who, in common with Safin, discovered that winning at the Australian Open in January was less a bright beginning than a prelude to a season of injuries and frustration, opened the proceedings yesterday with a 6-1, 6-3 win against the 16-year-old Jung-Jan Chan, of Chinese Taipei. Chan, ranked 261, led 3-1 in the second set and had a point for 4-1.

Hoping to add sparkle to the day's events, Williams arrived on court wearing a pair of $40,000 13-carat diamond dangling earrings loaned to her by a Los Angeles gem designer who calls her creation "The Dream Catcher".

Williams wore the earrings during the first set and then removed them, deciding that she did not need something borrowed on the court of blue. The 10th-seeded Williams, asked if she had been stunned by the turn of events following her triumph in Australia, said: "Not really. I was really excited to win there, because I didn't practise until I got to Australia. I was just playing on heart and desire and the abilities I have.

"I think afterwards I would have been solid if I hadn't twisted my ankle. Recently I've had a few doubts because of my ankle sprain and the way it affected my leg and my body. It was nerve-wracking.

"Every day I'm trying to make sure I stay in good shape injury-wise. I have a problem here and there. I don't want to get too into it, because every time I do my physio gets upset with me.

"I'm here, and I'm happy to be here," the American said. "I'm hitting better than I have all year. I'm moving much better. I'm not moving as I normally do, but I'm almost there. Hopefully, I'll pick up steam later on."