There was about as much chance of Serena Williams following Dinara Safina and Maria Sharapova out of the US Open here yesterday as there was of the American conceding that she should not be regarded as the world's best player. Daniela Hantuchova has reached one Grand Slam semi-final and three quarter-finals, but the 26-year-old Slovak offered minimal resistance as Williams powered into the quarter-finals with a 6-2, 6-0 win in just 64 minutes.
The first four games suggested that the defending champion might be tested, but from 2-2 Williams took complete control. Having closed out the first set with two aggressive backhand returns, she was even more dominant in the second, pounding backhands and forehands into the corners of the court. By the end of the match Hantuchova had won only 33 of the 92 points and struck just nine winners compared with Williams' 27.
"Daniela is such a good player that I knew coming into this match that I had to be serious because she always gives me trouble," Williams said afterwards. "I just wanted to try to do my best. I tried to relax. Sometimes I'm such a perfectionist that I put too much stress on myself."
Whether or not she carries on winning, Williams will still be No 2 in next week's updated world rankings list. Safina will keep her place at the top of the charts despite having been so badly out of tune here. The Russian, playing far too cautiously, produced her third error-ridden performance in succession on Saturday night. This time she could not find a way out of her crisis, losing 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 to the Czech teenager, Petra Kvitova, the world No 72, despite having three match points.
The match was scheduled to be the first of the evening session in Arthur Ashe Stadium but was moved to the smaller Louis Armstrong court because of the late-running afternoon session. Safina was not impressed. "I'm the No 1 player in the world, why did they move me?" she said. "This is not an excuse, but I don't think it's a fair decision."
It was the first time this year that Safina failed to reach the semi-finals or final of a Grand Slam tournament. With all the controversy over her place at the top of the world rankings, which she has earned through the sheer consistency of her performances, there was almost a sense of relief in her voice after the match. "I go on the court wanting to win so much and I put so much tension in it," she said. "I'm really looking forward to the off season."
The top half of the women's draw is now wide open. Sharapova had been looking good but was beaten on Saturday by Melanie Oudin, who has quickly become the darling of the New York crowd. The 17-year-old from Marietta, Georgia, followed up her defeat of Elena Dementieva, the Olympic champion, by beating Sharapova 3-6, 6-4, 7-5. She now faces a fourth Russian in succession in Nadia Petrova, the world No 13.