Williams overcomes first-round nerves to avoid Hewitt's fate

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The Independent Online

Serena Williams' aura of invincibility has taken a battering since she held the four major titles, aka the "Serena Slam", early this year. After her defeats by Justine Henin-Hardenne and Amelie Mauresmo, there was a moment midway through the No 1 seed's second set against her fellow American, Jill Craybas, when Centre Court wondered whether it was about to witness the first-round dethroning of a champion for the second afternoon running.

A moment, sadly for those who hoped the underdog might have another day, was all it was. Williams, who had broken Craybas' serve in the fourth game and taken the opening set 6-3 in 24 minutes, cruised into a 2-0 lead in the second set. Victory seemed a formality, yet she lost concentration. Suddenly she was 3-2 down to the world No 67, who was born on the fourth of July and now doubtless felt Yankee-doodle dandy.

In the game where she lost her serve, at 2-1 up, Williams changed her racket after putting an easy return into the net, which reminded one of Peter Schmeichel admonishing his gloves after a goalkeeping fumble. When she then overhit a straightforward forehand to go 0-40 down, her "Aagh" resembled a cry from the heart. And the game was lost, her knees buckled in a negative version of the now-abandoned curtsy.

Craybas, all 5ft 3in of her, is no Ivo Karlovic, however. Although she took the next game, featuring four deuces and advantage points to both players, the shock of being behind for the first time snapped the champion back into focusing on her task. In the next three games Williams conceded one point, and even an irritating delay due to the ringing of a mobile phone could not distract her from closing off the match at 6-3.

In contrast with her tribulations in Paris, where she was in tears after being booed during her semi-final against Henin-Hardenne, Williams received an affectionate ovation. She was also entitled to be pleased by the fact that she hit a winner every time she came to the net, an aspect which troubled her at Roland Garros.

"I was a bit nervous when I first got out there," Williams admitted. "I didn't want to lose in the first round and I definitely thought about what happened [to Lleyton Hewitt]. I'm sure he didn't take his opponent for granted, but I didn't want to make history by having two defending No 1 champions go out."

Asked whether she was embarrassed to have cried, Williams interrupted her questioner and said "Correction: my eyes were watering" before bursting into laughter. But she agreed the episode had "humanised" her for many people. "They realised that even though I win a lot, I'm human. I'm just a young lady trying to make her way in life."

There have been times in recent years when the state of the women's game has evoked Gary Lineker's now-dated definition of football as "a game between two sets of 11 players which the Germans always win". It appeared to have become a tour involving hundreds of players but which invariably ended up with the Williams sisters contesting the final.

If the all-Belgian affair in the French Open final is not to be seen as a blip, the likes of Henin-Hardenne, Jennifer Capriati, Kim Clijsters and Chanda Rubin will have to gatecrash the family party (not as easy at Wimbledon, one suspects, as at Windsor Castle).

Henin-Hardenne, a finalist in her second visit to SW19 and semi-finalist last year, faced the kind of conundrum which confronted Hewitt against the 6ft 10in Karlovic. Her opponent, Julia Vakulenko, stands seven inches taller at 6ft. With blonde corkscrew curls cascading from the back of her baseball cap, the 100th-ranked Ukrainian mixed unplayable serves (five aces to one in the first set but none thereafter) with slack hitting.

The right-handed Henin-Hardenne had her left wrist and two fingers heavily bandaged after a tumble in Den Bosch, and was no doubt thankful she has a one-handed backhand. She survived two break points at 2-2 in the first set, which she took 7-5 before running away with the second 6-1. "My injury problems are still bothering me," she said. "It's sore and painful but I'll be ready for the next round."

Capriati blazed her way to victory over Myriam Casanova, of Switzerland, taking the first set 6-1 in 19 minutes and the second 6-3 in only three minutes longer. The 27-year-old American, who beat Martina Navratilova here as a 15-year-old, was always in control, clinching the opening set with a devastating forehand return across court.

After building up the speed of her serve - to 113mph in the last game - Capriati finished off with a deft backhand winner on one of the few occasions she left the baseline. "I wanted to start strongly," the No 8 seed said. "So I just came out swinging, playing my game. The key to the second set was not to lose focus and let her back in the match. Now, if I've won the first set easily, I kind of pretend it's just starting."

Capriati's serve, a problem in the past, was consistently impressive. "It's just getting better and I'm gaining more confidence in it. I've been practising a lot." Could she still give Serena, Venus and the two Belgians a run for the winner's money? "Absolutely."

One poignant piece of news reached the All England Club yesterday. Gladys Heldman, who helped to initiate the women's professional tour in the days of sponsorship by Virginia Slims three decades ago (their slogan was "You've come a long way, baby"), has died at her home in New Mexico, aged 81.

Heldman wrote about and promoted the women's sport with a zeal for which today's players should be grateful. She even dug into her own pocket to put up the £5,000 prize-money for the first event, a sobering thought when the Williams sisters have earned £1.4m between them from tournaments this year and are now chasing a first prize of £535,000. The game has lost a great champion as the search for a new one gathers momentum.