Tie-break confusion as Sprem knocks out Williams

Venus Williams crashed out of Wimbledon yesterday at the hands of an aggressive 19-year-old who simply, and with brutal beauty, decided to out-hit the two-time champion who has featured in the last four finals. A powerful new force in the women's game, in the shape of Karolina Sprem, blew into Centre Court.

Venus Williams crashed out of Wimbledon yesterday at the hands of an aggressive 19-year-old who simply, and with brutal beauty, decided to out-hit the two-time champion who has featured in the last four finals. A powerful new force in the women's game, in the shape of Karolina Sprem, blew into Centre Court.

But the result will be over-shadowed by the storm whipped up after an extraordinary error by the umpire, Ted Watts, who wrongly awarded a point to Sprem in the second-set tie-break. Instead of calling the score at 2-1 to Williams, and a second serve by Sprem, he announced it was 2-2. Amazingly neither player, although clearly confused, queried the mistake and the match continued with the young Croat going on to win 7-6, 7-6.

Williams, though insisting she was not affected, served a fifth double-fault for match point. "It was very confusing," she said. "Sometimes I do lose track of the score, and I just felt that maybe... maybe I lost track again." She said it was not in her nature to query calls while Sprem simply said, implausibly, that she was "100 per cent" focussed and did not notice.

The tournament referee, Alan Mills, admitted: "It's a bizarre situation but unfortunately the way it happened, Venus did not query it and they played point after point and the result stands. I'm afraid Venus has left the tournament." Watts may do so also.

The incident dominated, which for Sprem is a shame as she fully deserved her victory. The way in which she pulled her opponent around the court, from corner to corner, was reminiscent of Monica Seles. And this from a player who was last year ranked 273rd in the world. But there is an unerring upward-mobility to her even if her career earnings stand at a modest $106,283. That is about to change. "I need more matches like today, to play against big players," Sprem said, admitting she also needed to eradicate a tendency to lose to lowly-ranked opponents.

The hitting was simply sensational and with it Sprem pushed Williams back, not allowing her to play her own game and forcing her to hit long. There were warning signs the last time the pair met, just a few weeks ago on the clay in Berlin when Williams dropped the first set, and was 3-0 down in the second, before winning.

"I don't think one call makes the match," said Williams of yesterday's reversal. "I had some opportunities". Indeed she did. Williams showed a customary tenacity which allowed her to earn two set points in the first set and three in the second. None was taken.

Instead, Williams netted twice in the first-set tie-break, under severe pressure, and struggled in the second when Sprem was close to going 5-2 ahead. It appeared that her nerves were beginning to show. As were Williams's. She lost her serve to love and was on the back foot again. Sprem wobbled, her groundstrokes were long but it went to a tie-break and, despite the mayhem, she held her nerve even if the umpire did not. "When I played in America against Serena I was scared," said Sprem of the Williams sisters. Yesterday she wasn't.

Another former champion also bowed out but the 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 defeat of the 47-year-old Martina Navratilova by Gisela Dulko, ranked 59 in the world and an astonishing 28 years her junior, was less of a surprise. Dulko, whose mother is the same age as Navratilova, had also triumphed when the two met in the first round of the French Open.

There were efficient straight-sets victories for the highly rated fourth seed, Amélie Mauresmo, tipped by some, including Navratilova, as a potential champion, and the dangerous Jennifer Capriati who is also highly rated. With Venus out, their chances increased.

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