Venus's risqué dress fashions a stir beyond the baseline

World No 2's lace outfit and skin-coloured underwear turn heads as American breezes into third round

It is eight years since Venus Williams reached her only final here, but for the first three days of the French Open no woman has drawn as much attention as the 29-year-old American. Williams is playing her most consistent tennis for years, having returned to No 2 in the world rankings, though it is not her backhands and forehands that have been the focus of interest, despite the impressive form she showed yesterday in beating Spain's Arantxa Parra Santonja 6-2, 6-4.

Glamour and fashion have always been integral parts of women's tennis and Williams has been maintaining that tradition with the dress she has been wearing here. The front page photograph in yesterday's official programme showed her in the outfit that has caused quite a stir in one of the world's great fashion centres. The No 2 seed has been playing in a revealing black lace dress with a plunging neckline and bright red straps that some might consider more appropriate to the dance floor than a tennis court.

Williams designed it herself in order to "represent what I think my personality is on the court". The dress is risqué enough, but underneath it Williams has been wearing skin-coloured underwear, giving the occasional illusion of flashes of flesh. A poll organised by one website showed that 40 per cent of voters thought she should be forced to change her outfit, while one reader suggested that she "looked more like Uranus Williams".

However, Williams insisted yesterday that "the design has nothing to do with the rear". She explained: "It just so happens that I have a very well-developed one. It's all genetic. If you look at my mum and dad, you'll see the same thing happening. If you look at my sister, you'll see the same thing. It's genetic.

"But it's really about the illusion. Like, you can wear lace, but what's the point of wearing lace when there's just black under it? The illusion of just having bare skin is definitely for me a lot more beautiful."

When she has not been designing clothes Williams has been interviewing personalities for her new book, Come to Win, which will be published next month. "It's really about how sport changes your life," she said. "We did a lot of interviews with a lot of great people, fashion designers like Vera Wang and politicians like Bill Clinton and Condoleezza Rice, how they started out in sports and how it made a huge difference in their life.

"Obviously they didn't become professional athletes, but they became great people in their field. So [the book is about] the lessons that sport taught them and how they even still apply to what they do now."

With rain showers interrupting play later in the afternoon, Williams was no doubt happy to be first on Court Philippe Chatrier. The American, who was serving at speeds of up to 125mph, earned a third-round meeting with Slovakia's Dominika Cibulkova thanks to a decisive victory over Santonja, whose double-handed grip on both flanks looked clumsy but did not prevent her hitting some telling ground strokes.

The 27-year-old world No 59, who has never gone beyond the third round here, made a fight of it until Williams broke serve in the seventh game of the second set. The decisive point was expertly played by the American, who drew her opponent into a moonball rally before sprinting forward to hit a winner with characteristic power. She completed her victory after an hour and 35 minutes with a service winner.

"I thought the courts were playing slower than my first round, so I definitely had to work the point a little more," Williams said. "She's scrappy, so she's going to throw up high balls, a slice, hit with some pace. I didn't know exactly what ball to expect. She definitely kept me on my toes. Overall today I just thought I played the bigger points, especially on my serve, really well. I think that was key."

This is Williams' 14th visit to Roland Garros, but she has been beyond the quarter-finals only once, when she was beaten by her sister Serena in the 2002 final. However, she has been in excellent form this year, having won 28 of her 32 matches. The sisters, who are again playing doubles here, are back at Nos 1 and 2 in the world rankings for the first time for seven years.

Aravane Rezai, who beat Williams in the final in Madrid earlier this month, also reached the third round, but was well below her best against Germany's Angelique Kerber. The Frenchwoman, who was in control until her concentration seemed to be broken by a rain break, needed an hour and 43 minutes before completing a 6-2, 2-6, 6-3 victory.

Rezai, who beat Williams, Justine Henin and Jelena Jankovic en route to the Madrid title, now plays Nadia Petrova. The Russian had few problems against Hungary's Agnes Szavay, winning 6-1, 6-2.

Elena Baltacha pulled out of the women's doubles, in which she was due to team up with Latvia's Liga Dekmeijere. The British No 1 wants to treat the back injury that first troubled her in Stuttgart last week.

"I've been advised that I should rest a bit longer," Baltacha said. "With the grass-court season just about to start, it would be silly to risk any more problems."

Men's singles Yesterday - First round: X Malisse (Bel) bt S Greul (Ger) 6-4 7-6 (9-7) 6-4. Second round: R Federer (Swit) bt A Falla (Col) 7-6 (7-4) 6-2 6-4; R Soderling (Swe) bt T Dent (US) 6-0 6-1 6-1; A Montanes (Sp) bt T Kamke (Ger) 6-3 6-2 6-1; V Troicki (Serb) bt C Ball (Aus) 6-4 6-3 6-3; M Cilic (Croa) bt D Gimeno-Traver (Sp) 6-3 7-6 (7-4) 6-2; J-W Tsonga (Fr) bt J Ouanna (Fr) 6-0 6-1 6-4; M Youzhny (Rus) bt L Lacko (Slovak) 6-7 (8-10) 6-3 6-3 6-2; L Mayer (Arg) bt J Benneteau (Fr) 6-7 (4-7) 6-3 6-4 6-4; T De Bakker (Neth) bt G Garcia-Lopez (Sp) 6-3 3-6 7-6 (7-5) 7-5. Tuesday's late results: First round: L Hewitt (Aus) bt J Chardy (Fr) 7-5 6-0 6-4.

Women's singles Yesterday - Second round: N Petrova (Rus) bt A Szavay (Hun) 6-1 6-2; A Amanmuradova (Uzb) bt J Larsson (Swe) 7-6 (7-2) 6-2; V Williams (US) bt A P Santonja (Sp) 6-2 6-4; D Cibulkova (Slovak) bt V Lepchenko (US) 4-6 6-2 6-0; A Dulgheru (Rom) bt T Bacsinszky (Swit) 6-4 6-2; F Pennetta (It) bt R Vinci (It) 6-1 6-1; M Kirilenko (Rus) bt Y Meusburger (Aut) 6-3 6-3; A Rezai (Fr) bt A Kerber (Ger) 6-2 2-6 6-3.

Tuesday's late results First round: M Sharapova (Rus) bt K Pervak (Rus) 6-3 6-2; O Sanchez (Fr) bt S Perry (US) 7-6 (7-4) 6-0; K Date Krumm (Japan) bt D Safina (Rus) 3-6 6-4 7-5.