US struggles to fill Williams void

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The Independent Online

American women's tennis is being given an insight into the future in Miami this week – and the signs are not encouraging. The absence of the Williams sisters through injury is serving only to underline the lack of up-and-coming talent.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands, the world No 43 and American No 3, was the highest-ranked home player in the women's field and did not last long, losing 6-2, 7-5 to Caroline Wozniacki, the world No 1. That left just one American, Varvara Lepchenko. The Uzbekistan-born world No 82, who became a US citizen this year, was due to play her second-round match yesterday against the Czech Republic's Petra Kvitova.

How the Americans are missing Serena and Venus Williams, who live just along the coast at Palm Beach Gardens. If the sisters' commitment to the tour in general has often been questioned, there can be no doubting their support for the Miami tournament. Venus has won the title there twice and Serena five times. It took Venus to end Serena's remarkable 21-match winning run at Crandon Park in 2005. Since they made their debuts at Miami both have missed the tournament on only two previous occasions.

In the absence of the sisters only seven Americans made the 96-player women's field, a figure that included two wild cards and two qualifiers. Wozniacki's verdict on Mattek-Sands was positive, though a 26-year-old who has never won a singles title on the main tour is hardly one for the future. "Bethanie is a tough player to play," Wozniacki said. "You never know what to expect from her. She goes for her shots no matter where she's standing on the court and it's difficult to get the rhythm."

At least the locals were able to welcome back a player they have come to regard as one of their own. Maria Sharapova, who lived in Florida from an early age, returned to play in Miami for the first time since 2007, having missed the previous three tournaments with injuries. Twice a runner-up in the tournament, Sharapova made an impressive start, beating Petra Martic, a wild card, 6-3, 6-2.

Sharapova's last match in Miami was a fourth-round defeat to Serena Williams. The Russian has been bedevilled by injuries in recent years, but after making the semi-finals in Indian Wells last week she is hoping to put those problems behind her. "My goal this year is to consistently stay healthy," she said. "Last week I got to the semi-finals. I was really happy because I hadn't played a tournament in a while."

As for being in Miami, Sharapova said she was excited to be back. "This is one of my favourite events," she said. "I'm just so happy to get back on that court today and I love playing in front of the crowd. They're so enthusiastic."

Some of the other seeds did not fare as well, with China's Li Na, Israel's Shahar Peer, Italy's Flavia Pennetta and Russia's Nadia Petrova all going out. Petrova retired with illness against Germany's Sabine Lisicki, who will be Sharapova's next opponent.

Li was beaten 7-5, 6-7, 7-6 in a dramatic match by Sweden's Johanna Larsson, who recorded her first victory over a top 10 player. Li had three match points at 5-4 in the final set and let slip a 4-0 lead in the deciding tie-break.

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer could both face tough challenges in their opening matches over the weekend. Nadal plays Japan's Kei Nishikori while Federer meets the Czech Republic's Radek Stepanek. Andy Murray was due to play his first match last night against the American Alex Bogomolov Jnr.