Williams, Agassi Weather Slow Starts

Times Staff Writer

There is a useful euphemism to describe the first week of a Grand Slam tournament:

The Seeded Player Protection Plan.

Here’s a more accurate portrayal. How about calling it the dulling down of a Grand Slam event?

To protect the top players, the number of seedings expanded from 16 to 32 at Wimbledon in 2001. The idea was to cut back on those nettlesome first-round upsets, keeping the very top players around for the final days, in part, to ensure better television ratings.


In this new world, Venus Williams would not have to play, and lose, to Barbara Schett in the first round at the French Open, the way she did in 2001.

The first-week winners are players such as Williams and those at the fringe of the seeded pool, such as Clarissa Fernandez of Argentina (No. 28) and Janette Husarova of Slovakia (No. 30). On the losing end is the first-week public making the trip to Melbourne Park.

One of the best things about the early days of a Grand Slam event used to be the possibility of major upsets and thrilling first-round matches. Now the big news leading into the Australian Open was the hot weather.

Would the wet bulb globe temperature trigger the revised heat policy? The highly anticipated heat wave stayed in check today. Sweaty, but not sweltering.


So even the most mundane moments of struggle took on added significance on the opening day of the Australian Open.

News flash I: Williams actually lost the first three games she played. News flash II: Andre Agassi came within two points of being forced to play a first-set tiebreaker.

But Williams and Agassi, both seeded second, righted themselves in time.

Williams, who had not played a match since early November, quickly scraped off the rust and defeated 17-year-old Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova, 6-4, 6-2, in 56 minutes.

Agassi lost a 3-1 lead in the first set and misfired early with his groundstrokes, committing 15 unforced errors in the first eight games against Brian Vahaly.

With Agassi leading, 6-5, in the first set, Vahaly had a sitter at 30-30, got to it late and put a forehand in the net. Agassi broke to win the set and went into cruise control, winning, 7-5, 6-3, 6-3.

“To be back here there were a lot of nerves because it’s been a long time,” said Agassi, who did not play in this tournament last year because of a wrist injury. “The day I’m not nervous coming out here is the day it’s time for me not to be playing anymore.”

Williams lost her first two service games to trail, 0-3, double-faulting three times. She tightened her game and the hard-hitting teenager, who won a doubles title with Martina Navratilova earlier this month, started missing and hurt herself with a foot fault at a crucial moment.


Kuznetsova was leading, 4-3, in the first set and the foot fault and the double fault came on her game point, at 40-30.

Two points later, Williams had the break and would go on to win eight of the last 10 games.

“I’m just a little rusty going out there,” said Williams, who had not played since losing to Kim Clijsters in the semifinals at the season-ending WTA Championships at Staples Center.

“At times, I shined through, at times I was my old self. At other times, I had some errors coming in. I didn’t expect to be 100% in this match, but in the next one, I expect to be at least 150.

“I was really just rushing out there. I wasn’t able to slow time down in my mind. I was just so ahead of myself.”

It was a mixed opening day for the Americans -- Alex Kim and Jack Brasington were gone by lunchtime.

Kim, who caused a stir last year by defeating Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the second round, lost to wild-card entrant Scott Draper of Australia and Brasington went out against U.S. Open semifinalist Sjeng Schalken of the Netherlands.

Draper defeated Kim, 7-5, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, in 2 hours 13 minutes and Schalken defeated Brasington, 6-4,6-2, 7-6 (5). Later, Mardy Fish beat qualifier Joachim Johansson of Sweden, 6-3, 7-5, 6-2.


In the women’s draw, former champion and ninth-seeded Lindsay Davenport beat wild-card entrant Camille Pin of France, 6-2, 6-1, and No. 15 Alexandra Stevenson, who had won only one match in three previous appearances at the Australian Open, defeated Elena Baltacha of Great Britain, 6-1, 6-4.

There was something of a breakthrough for Anna Kournikova of Russia, who failed to win a match at the four Grand Slam events in 2002. Kournikova defeated Henrieta Nagyova of Slovakia, 6-1, 6-2.

Jan-Michael Gambill also turned around his personal fortunes at Melbourne Park. Gambill had lost in the first round five times at the Australian Open. He won his first match at this event but it wasn’t easy, beating Michael Llodra of France, 6-2, 7-5, 6-7 (3), 4-6, 6-2.