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Early Exit for Open’s Defending Champ

Times Staff Writer

Usually someone turns into a forgotten champion after a loss, not before one.

In Svetlana Kuznetsova’s case, it seemed a fait accompli. The Russian showed up in New York, results and confidence in tatters.

Another hint of her lack of presence: the defending U.S. Open women’s champion was put in Armstrong Stadium on Monday for her first-round match, not the main show court at the National Tennis Center, Arthur Ashe Stadium.

A little more than an hour later, Kuznetsova’s reign here ended. She became the first defending women’s champion to exit in the first round. Little-known Ekaterina Bychkova of Russia, who was making her Grand Slam debut, defeated Kuznetsova, 6-3, 6-2.

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It had never happened since the U.S. Championships began in 1887, officials said. This sort of Slam history seemed to be turning into a Russian trend in 2005. At the French Open, defending champion Anastasia Myskina lost in the first round to Maria Sanchez Lorenzo of Spain, but Myskina was dealing with her mother’s serious illness.

At least Sanchez Lorenzo had some sort of Slam credentials. Bychkova, ranked 97th, had failed to qualify this year at the Australian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon.

Kuznetsova, who had 45 unforced errors, looked more resigned than devastated.

“I think I get more pressure than attention because every time they’re asking, ‘What do you think about defending your title?’ ” she said, adding, “This wasn’t big match for me.” So, if defending a title wasn’t, then what is?

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“It takes a while to play with pressure, to learn how to play with pressure.”

Kuznetsova wasn’t the only seeded casualty on Day 1. Wild-card entry Brian Baker, 20, recorded his first win at a Slam, beating 2004 French Open champion and No. 9 Gaston Gaudio of Argentina, 7-6 (9), 6-2, 6-4, surviving what he called “anxiety cramps.” Many hours later, Baker was joined in the second round by another American wild card, Scoville Jenkins, who defeated qualifier George Bastl of Switzerland, despite losing a two-set lead. Jenkins beat Bastl, 7-6 (4), 6-0, 6-7 (1), 4-6, 7-6 (5), in 4 hours 29 minutes.

Jenkins, 18, didn’t stop fighting, rallying from a break down in the fifth. The final tiebreaker was similarly up-and-down. Jenkins led, 5-2, and Bastl got it back to 5-5 before Jenkins hit a service winner and fired a return winner off a second serve.

It was his first five-set match, and Jenkins’ effort was greatly appreciated by the throng surrounding Court 4.

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“That was the first time I ever experienced anything like this,” Jenkins said. “It’s a great feeling that somebody wanted to give you a hug after they’ve seen you play tennis.”

In the featured night match, No. 7 Andre Agassi defeated Razvan Sabau of Romania, 6-3, 6-3, 6-1.

Agassi did not leave the door open for another Davis Cup appearance this year, in the Sept. 23-25 relegation round at Belgium, saying, “Well, they’re playing on clay, so my history would suggest that I would lose to anybody on clay these days.”

Though it wasn’t an overly hot day in New York, humidity took its toll. Akiko Morigami of Japan stopped because of heat illness and cramping after splitting sets with Nicole Pratt of Australia, needing to leave the court in a wheelchair. American wild card Ashley Harkleroad retired after losing the first nine games against Fabiola Zuluaga of Colombia, apparently suffering from an illness.

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Top-seeded Maria Sharapova of Russia and sisters Venus and Serena Williams had little trouble. Sharapova defeated Eleni Daniilidou of Greece, 6-1, 6-1, in 66 minutes. Tenth-seeded Venus Williams beat Rika Fujiwara of Japan, 6-3, 6-1, and No. 8 Serena Williams defeated qualifier Yung-Jan Chan of Taiwan, 6-1, 6-3.

Perhaps Serena’s biggest moment of anxiety came with her $40,000 earrings, on loan from Los Angeles jewelry designer Erica Courtney. She apparently lost the back of one earring and had to take them out in the first set.

Rest assured, another pair was said to be on the way.

*

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At a glance

Highlights from Monday at the U.S. Open:

* Top men’s seeded winners: No. 2 Rafael Nadal, No. 8 Guillermo Coria, No. 10 Mariano Puerta, No. 13 Richard Gasquet, No. 14 Thomas Johansson, No. 18 Ivan Ljubicic.

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* Men’s seeded loser: No. 9 Gaston Gaudio.

* Top women’s seeded winners: No. 1 Maria Sharapova, No. 4 Kim Clijsters, No. 8 Serena Williams, No. 9 Nadia Petrova, No. 10 Venus Williams.

* Women’s seeded losers: No. 5 Svetlana Kuznetsova, No. 14 Alicia Molik, No. 22 Silvia Farina Elia and No. 28 Flavia Pennetta.

TODAY’S FEATURED MATCHES

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* Day session: Roger Federer (1), Switzerland, vs. Ivo Minar, Czech Republic; Greg Rusedski (28), Britain, vs. James Blake; Justine Henin-Hardenne (7), Belgium, vs. Zuzana Ondraskova, Czech Republic.

* Night session: Li Na, China, vs. Lindsay Davenport (2); Gilles Muller, Luxembourg, vs. Andy Roddick (4).


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