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Happy returns for Williams, Hingis, Safin

Wednesday, was a day of many happy returns since three past champions managed to make a bit of news merely by showing up.

india Updated: Aug 31, 2006 12:14 IST
Associated Press
Associated Press

There was Serena Williams, unseeded but overpowering her opponent, then quoting supermodel-turned-reality-TV-star Heidi Klum.

There was Martina Hingis, down a set but coming back by using all of her guile and working every angle on court, including smacking one volley left-handed.

And there was Marat Safin, winning but muttering to himself, smashing a racket, and - as only he can- challenging the validity of an instant replay ruling.

It was a day of many happy returns at the US Open on Wednesday, when those three past champions managed to make a bit of news merely by showing up. For Williams, it was her first Grand Slam match since January; Hingis and Safin both were playing at Flushing Meadows for the first time since 2002.

"It's good to be back," said Hingis, who beat Peng Shuai of China 4-6, 6-1, 6-3. "First of all, the energy of New York itself, it's already great. And then walking on to the stadium, it was amazing. I was nervous in the beginning."

The most anticipated return of all, though, might simply have been the tennis itself, after continuous light rain and mist on Tuesday gave the U.S. Open its first day without a completed match in 19 years.

Williams, who won the Open in 1999 and 2002, missed this year's French Open and Wimbledon, six months in all, with a left knee injury, so she needed a wild card to get into the field.

But, perhaps thanks to a week with esteemed coach Nick Bolletieri, Williams had no trouble at all on Wednesday, beating Lourdes Dominguez Lino of Spain 6-1, 6-2.

With her older sister Venus munching on a sandwich in the stands, Williams ended a 22-stroke exchange with a backhand down the line that she punctuated with a grunt and a fist pump. That earned a break point, quickly converted with a cross-court backhand for a 3-2 lead in the second set.

"It was quite difficult to stop her," Dominguez Lino said. "She might not be at the best point in her career or her best shape, but she's still Serena."

Indeed she is, which means at least as many questions about fashion as forehands. Williams gladly talked about "the Asian influence" on the design of her dress, noted that "purple is a really hot color this fall," and credited "Project Runway" star Klum with the motto - "Some days you're in. The next, you're out."

That's sort of what happened to Hingis, who won the 1997 Open and four other major titles but went into retirement after a series of ankle and foot problems. She's back now at 25, a fan favorite everywhere she goes.

Shuai uses two-fisted grips for strong groundstrokes off both wings, but Hingis kept mixing speeds and cutting off shots, winning 22 of 26 points at the net.

That included her slick switch from right to left when she realized she wouldn't be able to reach a volley with her backhand. The lefty shot was something she picked up at age 7, when she broke her right pinkie shortly before a local tournament.

As recently as six years ago, the question everyone had for Safin was, "Just how many Grand Slam titles will you win?" When he routed Pete Sampras in the 2000 Open final, Safin was 20, possessor of a powerful serve and 6-foot-4 (1.93-meter) frame.

But something happened on the way to greatness, perhaps due to his taste for the nightlife and propensity for injuries. He did win the 2005 Australian Open, but like Williams, his ranking fell out of the top 100 and he's not seeded here.

"Nobody's scared of you anymore," Safin said. "It's not the same situation it used to be."

During his 6-1, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 victory over Robin Vik of the Czech Republic, Safin challenged a fault call on one of his third-set serves. When video replay confirmed the "out" call, Safin questioned that, too.

Later, he said of the new system, "I don't think it's 100 percent."

Nothing if not opinionated, Safin offered thoughts on all sorts of subjects:

On the Cincinnati Masters, played in Mason, Ohio - "Go there and see how depressing that place is."

On taking a break from coach Peter Lundgren, "I didn't know where I was going."

On the state of his career, "I'm not planning to retire. I still think I can win a lot of tournaments, and I still think I can win a couple of Grand Slams."

On people who thought he'd dominate the sport, "The people- they were wrong."

First Published: Aug 31, 2006 12:01 IST