Serena back to her best to avenge sister's defeat

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Suggestions that Serena Williams's unbeaten streak in Grand Slam tournaments might be vulnerable were put firmly into perspective yesterday when the world No 1 moved into the fourth round of the French Open here in the most emphatic way possible.

Defeats to Justine Henin-Hardenne and Amelie Mauresmo in recent weeks have given the rest of the sorority at the top of women's tennis hope that they could prevent the younger Williams winnning a major for the first time since last year's Australian Open. They might yet, but yesterday Williams dismissed Barbara Schett 6-0, 6-0 in 40 minutes.

While Schett isn't the force she was when ranked seventh four years ago, the severity of the victory will remind Henin-Hardenne, Mauresmo, and other title hopefuls such as Kim Clijsters, Jennifer Capriati and Lindsay Davenport, that Serena's alleged vulnerability is very relative.

After completing what she termed a "Serena Slam" when she won the Australian Open in January to hold all four major titles, Williams said her aim was now to go through the year unbeaten. Losing twice by the middle of May has therefore been taken as a sign that her edifice of invincibility is crumbling, whereas not since Martina Hingis arrived here unbeaten in 1997 has a world No 1 been so dominant this early in the year.

The demolition job on Schett was not the quickest women's victory ever witnessed on the Philippe Chatrier arena. Steffi Graf's 6-0, 6-0 win over Natasha Zvereva in the 1988 final took 33 minutes, and left the 17-year-old from Minsk so scarred that her singles career never recovered.

Yesterday's win for the top seed also carried a sense of the fury of a Williams scorned. Two years ago the Austrian put out her sister Venus in the first round here. Though she did not cite it as a primary reason for the thoroughness of her victory, Serena said: "Her being my sister, maybe deep down there's something there. But I knew Barbara has been in the top 10 so I had to be really serious, I couldn't joke around at all."

A greater motivation for getting off court quickly was more likely the heat. The mercury topped 30C with mounting humidity, and the message from those who coming off court victorious was one of relief. Mauresmo and Henin-Hardenne were particularly pleased to have played short matches, as both could run into Serena Williams in week two.

Mauresmo, the fifth seed and Williams' projected quarter-final opponent, ended the spirited challenge of Fabiola Zuluaga from Colombia 6-3, 6-4. Hemmed in by the hopes of the French crowd in the past, the 23-year-old seems to be dealing with the weight of home expectations much better. "I'm feeling it a little bit," Mauresmo said, "but not so much. I don't read the press, I just do my thing."

Henin-Hardenne, who could meet Serena in the semi-finals, took less time to beat Dally Randriantefy, the first top-level tennis player to come from Madagascar. Randriantefy has now made it to the third round of three Grand Slam tournaments, beginning when she lost to the eventual champion, Mary Pierce, at the 1995 Australian Open. If that is an omen for the Belgian, the 50 minutes they spent on court in Henin-Hardenne's 6-1, 6-1 win will have done nothing to dent her chances of lifting the Suzanne Lenglen Cup a week today.

Being of slight physique, albeit with an expanding muscle mass, the fourth seed knows she can throw away any chance of winning the tournament if she gets drawn into too many long matches in the first week. "It's good that physically I had a short match today," she said. "It gives me more chances for the future of the tournament. It was quite hot out there, so it was good to spare my body."

Henin-Hardenne may have a much tougher fourth round match tomorrow - her 21st birthday - when she faces Patty Schnyder. The 19th seed was a 6-3, 6-4 winner over the rising Greek 14th seed Eleni Daniilidou, and her unorthodox left-handed playing style could well present difficulties for the likeable Belgian.

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