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Serena Williams Beats Irina Spirlea

January 19, 1998

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) _ No bump, no fight, no fuss.

Serena Williams simply outran and outplayed an unusually subdued Irina Spirlea in the first round of the Australian Open on Monday, setting up a likely and unwanted second-round duel against sister Venus Williams.

In her debut at the year’s first Grand Slam event, Serena, 16, showed poise beyond her years as she came back after blowing three set points at 5-3 in the first set and losing a tiebreaker. Instead of dwelling on that loss, she settled into a serving groove, cracking five aces and beating the No. 6 Spirlea 6-7 (7-5), 6-3, 6-1.

Venus Williams was scheduled to play the first night match against Alexia Dechaume-Balleret of France, with the winner to play Serena Williams.

``Venus has no reason to fear me ... I’ve never feared anybody,″ Serena Williams said.

The match was hardly a blast from the fiery past that might have been expected.

Williams’ father, Richard Williams, called Spirlea ``a big, tall, white turkey″ at the U.S. Open last September after the Romanian deliberately bumped into Venus Williams during a changeover in the semifinals.

``She ought to be glad it wasn’t Serena she bumped into. She would have been decked,″ said Richard Williams, who thought the collision was racially motivated.

Spirlea didn’t mince words when asked about the incident, cursing Williams at a news conference. For that, Spirlea earned a $5,000 fine and secured a feisty reputation reminiscent of compatriot Ilie Nastase.

Serena was an innocent bystander that day, watching it all unfold and seeing Venus, 17, come back to win the match and go to the final of her first U.S. Open.

This time, Serena carefully avoided any confrontation, usually walking around the umpire’s chair on changeovers, and allowing Spirlea to walk between the chair and the net.

Spirlea had some thoughts of a confrontation when she looked at the draw.

``During the match, no. Before the match, sure,″ Spirlea said.

Ranked No. 56 after moving up 40 spots last week following a victory over No. 3 Lindsay Davenport in the Sydney International quarterfinals, Serena Williams is rising in tennis almost as fast as her sister.

The Australian Open began on a gorgeous summer day, not too hot, hot too humid and just right for Mirjana Lucic, another of the most promising teens in tennis, to win in her debut at this tournament.

An intimidating player from Croatia who stands halfway between the service box and the baseline while receiving serve, the 15-year-old Lucic crushed returns in a 7-5, 6-1 win before her serve-and-volley opponent, Rennae Stubbs, could even think of charging the net.

Another teen with great promise, 16-year-old Australian Lleyton Hewitt, tumbled out in his first match just eight days after he won his first ATP Tour event. Hewitt, who is also entered in the juniors, fell to Daniel Vacek 6-2, 6-4, 1-6, 2-6, 6-3.

Lucic got away with crowding the service box on returns against Stubbs, a good player who is still rusty after an eight-month layoff last year because of a wrist injury. But Stubbs didn’t think the strategy will work against better players.

``I don’t think it’s smart of her to do it on first serves,″ Stubbs said. ``If you stand back, you get more angle. When I did serve well, she wasn’t doing anything at all. The better players will work that out. The second serve is a different story. She just climbs all over the ball. I wasn’t about to chip and charge on second serve against her or I might find I’d have a few bruises on my body.″

In other early matches, No. 4 Jonas Bjorkman, No. 6 Petr Korda and No. 7 Carlos Moya won their opening matches, while women’s No. 8 Conchita Martinez and No. 16 Ruxandra Draomir also advanced. No. 12 Sabine Appelmans became the first seeded player to lose, falling to Natasha Zvereva in three sets.

A year ago, an obscure player shook the Australian Open by becoming the first man in 20 years to knock out the defending champion in the opening round of a Grand Slam event.

Pete Sampras, the defending men’s champion and top seed this year, is on alert not to succumb to the same fate that befell Boris Becker last year.

Sampras’ first-round opponent is Sjeng Schalken of the Netherlands, every bit as unknown as Carlos Moya was last year when he beat Becker after a 3 1/2-hour, five-set struggle in brutal heat.

Temperatures in Melbourne in recent days have soared over 100 degrees, and if they spike up again anything could happen _ especially to a player such as Sampras, who has problems in the heat.

Moya was ranked No. 25 when he upset Becker then surged against all odds to the final. He comes back this year seeded No. 7. The 21-year Schalken, born 12 days after Moya, is ranked No. 51. And, like Moya a year ago, his only experience at the Australian has been quick first-round exits.

Which makes Schalken a perfectly unlikely, and perfectly logical, player to do unto Sampras what Moya did unto Becker. Not to mention that, like Moya, Schalken can play some pretty good tennis when he’s on. At 6-foot-3, he has a big serve and a good all-court game. His loss in Australia a year ago came stubbornly at 8-6 in the fifth set against two-time champion Jim Courier.

Opening day at the Australian has often been filled with upsets. Maybe it’s the weather. Maybe it’s the time of year, when the players are just getting back from monthlong vacations and their timing is not quite at a peak.

Whatever the reasons, the potential for upsets loom again.

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