Disastrous start to season for error-stricken Williams

After returning to peak form and winning Wimbledon last year, Venus Williams made a disastrous start to the season yesterday, succumbing to a little-known Bulgarian teenager in the first round of the Australian Open.

The American No 10 seed lost 2-6, 6-0, 9-7 to Tszvetana Pironkova, ranked No 94 in the world, in her worst Grand Slam performance for five years. Asked what lesson she drew from it, an ill-tempered Williams replied: "I think this is an indication that you cannot make 70 unforced errors and expect to win a match."

In fact, her error total was 65, two-thirds of them originating in a third set that exposed her as rusty and unfit. Notwithstanding her epic defeat of Lindsay Davenport in the Wimbledon final, she played only 12 tournaments last year and, until yesterday, had not struck a ball competitively since September.

Her sister, Serena, the defending Australian Open champion and No 13 seed, is scarcely more match-fit; however, she came through a tight second set to beat China's Na Li, 6-3, 6-7, 6-2.

Other seeds were less fortunate, with Elena Dementieva, the Russian No 9, defeated 7-5, 6-2 by Germany's Julia Schruff, and four other top-ranked players - Tatiana Golovin, Ai Sugiyama, Anabel Medina Garrigues and Klara Koukalova, - knocked out.

The leading men fared better, with the American Taylor Dent, ranked 27th, the only high-profile casualty, beaten by Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, of Spain. Andy Roddick, the No 2 seed, survived, as did the fourth-ranked David Nalbandian, with the latter fending off a five-set challenge by Thailand's Danai Udomchoke.

In the women's draw, Davenport, the top seed and runner-up last year, progressed to the second round, as did Maria Sharapova, the No 4 seed, and Justine Henin-Hardenne, the French Open champion.

For Venus, though, yesterday evoked memories of her ignominious first-round exit from the French Open in 2001. Serving for the match at 6-5 in the third set, she was broken by the 18-year-old Pironkova, playing in her first Grand Slam encounter.

"I was just struggling to keep the ball in today," Williams said. "I just seemed to get to a point where I couldn't pull my game together. I don't know what happened. Obviously she benefited from my largesse." She snapped at a reporter who questioned whether she could regain her best form. "There's always going to be naysayers. You may be one of them, I don't know. Guess what, I don't care."

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