Williams passes tough test posed by Likhovtseva

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The Independent Online

Serena Williams took her second step back into the game at the Nasdaq Open here yesterday, but her play was not as silky as her white dress as she overcame Elena Likhovtseva, of Russia, 6-1, 4-6, 6-3, after an hour and 46 minutes.

Serena Williams took her second step back into the game at the Nasdaq Open here yesterday, but her play was not as silky as her white dress as she overcame Elena Likhovtseva, of Russia, 6-1, 4-6, 6-3, after an hour and 46 minutes.

Part of the problem was that everything went too smoothly for Williams at the start. The American defending champion took charge in the opening set with such sharpness and confidence that it was hard to believe she had been out of action since winning Wimbledon eight months ago. However, although every shot Williams hit whizzed past her opponent, Likhovtseva made it easy for the American by double-faulting to lose serve in the first and third game and double-faulting three times in the fifth game. Remarkably, Williams was broken while serving for the set at 5-1, but the Russian failed to win a point in the next game.

After losing the first set in 28 minutes, Likhovtseva took an injury time out to have her right knee strapped. The transformation was amazing. Likhovtseva not only held her serve throughout the set, but she also broke Williams to 15 in the ninth game and closed out the set in spite of two more double-faults.

Williams asserted herself at the start of the final set, assisted by Likhovtseva's 10th double-fault to lose her serve in the second game, but Williams needed five match points to serve out the match at 5-3, finally hitting a backhand winner.

With a hurricane about to strike Gustavo Kuerten's homeland, it was no effort for the Brazilian to keep in perspective a defeat in his opening match in the men's singles. The three-times French Open champion and former world No 1 from Florianopolis, Brazil, lost, 6-1, 3-6, 7-5, to Juan Monaco, a 19-year-old Argentinian qualifier.

Monaco, ranked No 156, is the latest impressive Latin American prospect, while the 27-year-old Kuerten continues to struggle for the form and fitness that made him such a formidable competitor prior to his hip problems in 2002.

Kuerten, given a bye in the first round as the 18th seed, made his opponent work hard for victory on Saturday night, Monaco having toughened his game with a straight sets win against Joachim Johansson, of Sweden, in the opening round. Kuerten, who won a clay court title in Brazil last month and was a finalist in Viña del Mar, Chile, is looking forward to the European season on the slower courts.

Andre Agassi, who won this title for the sixth time last year, advanced to the third round with a 6-0, 7-6 win against Mariano Zabaleta, of Argentina, 6-0, 7-6. The fourth-seeded Agassi conceded only one point in the second-set tie-break. He next plays the tall, aggressive Max Mirnyi, of Belarussia, seeded No 28.

Roger Federer, the Wimbledon champion and world No 1, was due to play the eager young Spaniard Rafael Nadal last night after surviving his opening match against Nikolay Davydenko, of Russia, on Saturday night, 6-2, 3-6, 7-5.

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