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Shaky Sharapova survives early scare at French Open

Start with this statistic on a busy, blustery day at Roland Garros: Maria Sharapova hit 17 double-faults. It bears repeating: 17.


Start with this statistic on a busy, blustery day at Roland Garros: Maria Sharapova hit 17 double-faults. It bears repeating: 17.

She hammered hard serves, and they sailed long. She tapped soft serves, and they landed in the bottom of the net. And she played poorly enough overall to come within two points of becoming the only No. 1-seeded woman in French Open history to lose in the first round.

Sharapova did regroup in time to barely piece together a 6-1, 3-6, 8-6 victory over Evgeniya Rodina, a Russian teen making her Grand Slam debut Wednesday.

"I don't think I'd be able to get away with not playing and not serving that well with maybe a different opponent and somebody that has more experience, a top player," said Sharapova, who placed part of the blame for her woes on swirling wind that kicked up clouds of dust on court. "But I'll work on it, and it will be better."

It was a much better day for Aleksandra Wozniak of Blaineville, Que., who upset 20th-seeded Austrian Sybille Bammer to advance to the second round at a major for the first time in her career.

She sailed past Bammer 6-0, 6-2. Wozniak, who is ranked 140th in the world, committed 13 unforced errors to Bammer's 27 and converted six of 11 break points.

The lone Canadian in the singles draw will face 50th-ranked Akgul Amanmuradova of Uzbekistan in the second round.

Sharapova nearly didn't make it that far.

The awful serving and generally sub-par showing by someone who's supposed to be the best in the world at what she does shared top billing with the dry weather as Wednesday's most noteworthy developments. After three days of rain - Sharapova originally was to be on court Tuesday - not a drop fell, permitting match after match after match at the clay-court major.

That meant there were other numbers of note, if not much in the way of stunning results:

-Serena Williams made it to the third round for the 33rd time in 34 career Grand Slam tournaments.

-Rafael Nadal improved to 22-0 at the French Open.

Williams found herself trailing 5-3 in the second set against Mathilde Johansson, a French wild-card entry who began this tournament with a 2-5 career Grand Slam record. But Williams took the next four games to end it 6-2, 7-5.

"I haven't played my best tennis, so hopefully the next round, I'll play better," said Williams, who won the French Open in 2002 and is the only past champion in the women's field.

Nadal began his bid to match Bjorn Borg's four consecutive titles from 1978-81 by beating qualifier Thomaz Bellucci. A rain shower forced them to pack up and head home Tuesday tied at 1-1, and Nadal stumbled at the start Wednesday, getting broken to fall behind 2-1, then again when serving for the first set at 5-3. But he recovered nicely, winning 7-5, 6-3, 6-1.

"It was tough, no? The conditions are very, very bad," Nadal said. "The winds are terrible."

Like Nadal, Bellucci entered the day never having been forced to experience the bitter taste of defeat at Roland Garros. That, of course, is because he never had played a main-draw match in the French Open - or any other Grand Slam tournament, for that matter.

"These were two difficult days, because as time goes by, you get more nervous and you can't practice, so I probably lost the rhythm I had acquired before this tournament," Nadal said. "But I hope this won't be a problem for the rest of the tournament."

Nadal, Sharapova and other players around the grounds complained about the way loose particles got in their faces and left courts barer than usual.

"Apart from eating and breathing the sand, it was great," Sharapova said. "It's dry and you've got sand blowing in your face. So you think it's a hard court, but then you feel like you're in a desert."

Maybe the surfaces really did play like hard courts, for what else could explain the success of the men from the United States? They went 5-5 in the first round this time, capped by victories Wednesday by Mardy Fish, Bobby Reynolds and Robby Ginepri.

Fish beat Agustin Calleri of Argentina 6-7 (6), 6-4, 6-2, 6-4, and Reynolds defeated Thierry Ascione of France 7-6 (2), 4-6, 6-3, 6-2. Ginepri's match against Donald Young had to produce a U.S. winner, and it was Ginepri, by a score of 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (4), 6-2.

"When we come over here, we're already, I think, one step slower than the other Europeans and other guys," said Ginepri, who shares coach Jose Higueras with top-ranked Roger Federer. "But to be honest, I'm enjoying the clay, and I'm actually a little sad that this is the last clay tournament of the year."

American Wayne Odesnik, who is ranked 106th, followed up his upset of No. 29 Guillermo Canas by beating Lee Hyung-taik 6-2, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 and now will take on No. 3 Novak Djokovic, who dropped only five games in his second-round win.

"It's always good to have easy matches," said Djokovic, the Australian Open champion.

Sharapova, who also won in Melbourne in January, made more than twice as many unforced errors as Rodina, 51-23.

"I had problems in every department," Sharapova said. "Realistically, I don't know if there's any way down from here."

She could, at least, take solace in not having joined No. 9 Marion Bartoli on the way out after one match. Bartoli, a Frenchwoman who was a Wimbledon finalist last year but is struggling with a wrist injury and an 8-12 record at the moment, lost to Casey Dellacqua of Australia 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-2.

Sharapova twice served three double-faults in a single game, making recreational players everywhere feel better about their own foibles. On occasion, she resorted to first serves barely above 80 miles per hour, which might not sound too shabby but certainly is on the slow side for a three-time major champion.

Trailing 4-3 in the final set, Sharapova faced three break points and saved them, remarkably, with three fantastic first serves. Then, down 5-4, a - wait for it - double-fault made the score 30-all, putting Rodina two points from about as big a stunner as tennis has seen. Somehow, Sharapova mustered two service winners, at 101 m.p.h. and 102 m.p.h.

Three games later, Sharapova finally seized control, breaking serve to go ahead 7-6 with a big forehand return that caught Rodina flat-footed.

Sharapova still had to hold serve one more time, and she did, although not before one last double-fault, No. 17.

 
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