The Melbourne Age newspaper ran a cheekily worded headline the other day - "Does my class look big in this?" - over a photograph of Serena Williams.
It may seem unkind to draw attention to Williams' size but the reality is that, for an élite athlete, she is decidedly out of shape. Last night the defending Australian Open champion paid the price when she was defeated in the third round, in straight sets, by Slovakia's Daniela Hantuchova.
Williams, who played only 28 matches during 2005 and turned up at the season-opening Grand Slam with virtually no preparation, saved four match points but was outplayed from start to finish by the 17th-ranked Hantuchova.
The 22-year-old Slovakian, who has one career title to her name, had never before taken a set - never mind a match - off Williams, the winner of 26 titles including six Grand Slams. Wreathed in smiles yesterday, she said: "I keep fighting for every point in every match, and you never know what's going to happen."
Hantuchova sprinted through the first set in 31 minutes, yielding only one game to the American. Then, after Williams saved three match points, forcing the second set into a tie-break, Hantuchova held her nerve - even after throwing away a double mini-break and a fourth match point - to resolve the encounter 6-1, 7-6.
During the day players at Melbourne Park had wilted in 40C heat, which later gave way to a dramatic electrical storm. Tournament organisers closed the retractable roof of the Rod Laver Arena but, falsely optimistic, subsequently re-opened it. A second downpour forced play to be suspended in the first set, when Hantuchova was 3-1 up with a break.
Williams, whose sister, Venus, departed even more prematurely, in the first round, is famous for her ability to come back. But yesterday little went right for her."I just made a lot of errors," Williams said. " I couldn't find my shots at all."
It is questionable whether Oracene Williams, her mother and coach, who watched from the stands, would agree. The former world No 1 is a long way from the form and fitness that saw her win four consecutive majors in 2002-03, an achievement she dubbed the "Serena Slam".
Williams had been set to meet Maria Sharapova in the fourth round in a re-match of their semi-final here last year, when the former triumphed en route to victory over Lindsay Davenport in the final.
Instead, Hantuchova will face an intimidatingly on-form Sharapova, who yesterday swatted aside Croatia's Jelena Kostanic, beating her 6-0, 6-1 in 68 minutes. Kostanic did not play badly, but she did not even have game point until the eighth game and it took her 43 minutes to get on the board.
The unseeded Croatian looked despairing as Sharapova pounded winner after winner, and occasionally shook her head in disbelief. She had just two break points in the entire match, both during the fourth game of the second set, and failed to convert either.
Joining the Russian No 4 seed in the fourth round are Davenport, the top seed, Nadia Petrova, the No 6, and Justine Henin-Hardenne, the No 8.
In the men's draw, Andy Roddick, ranked No 2, went through in straight sets, as did Spain's David Ferrer, the No 11 seed. Gaston Gaudio, the Argentinian No 8 seed, was knocked out by Fabrice Santoro, of France, in five sweltering sets.Reuse content